Social media is not the public square
Think Facebook’s ban of Donald Trump is justified? It’s a fascinating issue, one that gets to the heart of the differences between the internet and more traditional news sources like television, radio and newspapers.
First, it’s good to remember that Facebook is a private company. Because of the sheer numbers — 3.45 billion people were using at least one of the company’s core products (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger) in the first quarter of 2021 — and because of the way it is set up, many think of it as something it’s not: a public forum for all to express their opinions. Though social media sites have traditionally done very little editing of posts, it is still a private business and not the public square. Its owners have every right to set up guidelines for how they will do business.
We, as users, choose whether to do business with Facebook or any other internet site. Some do so to the tune of spending hours a day browsing different sites and making posts, often complaining later about getting “sucked down the rabbit hole.”
Second, Washington lawmakers made the decision a long time ago to treat online news differently than traditional news sources. Many have heard of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, commonly referred to as “Section 230.” It basically protects online sites from legal claims of libel and defamation for posts made by users.
The law was passed, some argue, to encourage the growth of the online businesses and commerce, recognizing that the sheer volume of users would prevent editors from checking every post. Others say the law was meant to allow site hosts to edit and remove content — like the Trump ban — without facing lawsuits.
We in the newspaper business don’t have the first protection, but we have the same ability to moderate content. Because we are responsible for every word in every edition, we can be sued for purposely or maliciously lying or printing falsehoods in order to damage a person or a business’ reputation.
As a newspaper owner, I was originally unhappy that online sites have the protections in Section 230. I think algorithms to check nearly every post could be developed. Hell, they monitor all our online activity already, as we all know from the ads that get thrown at us.
As more time has passed, however, I’ve changed my mind. Now, I think, users know that newspapers and other traditional media sites that have to moderate their content are seen as more dependable, more trustworthy. I see some individual making a rash claim on a Facebook post and I’m immediately skeptical; I see it attributed to a bona fide news site — whether that be a conservative or liberal leaning organization — and I’m more likely to trust it. With real news organizations, you may disagree with an opinion or a story, but we won’t publish outright falsehoods despite what some say or believe.
One legal article I read compared the social media sites to blank rolls of newsprint. The users choose what is on that newsprint, not its owners — Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. So, if I post something libelous on Facebook, I can be sued but Facebook can’t. It is protected.
In Trump’s case, however, Facebook’s Oversight Board decided he violated its policies. For now, he’s been banned for two years and the decision stands until Jan. 7, 2023. The company says it has new rules for public figures in times of civil unrest and violence and that Trump was given the maximum suspension. When the suspension ends, Facebook will “evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest,” according to a statement from Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs.
Read the statement carefully, and it is clear the Oversight Board is doing two things: granting itself broad powers to moderate content on the platform while also committing to be more open about its policies and how it makes those decisions. That sounds relatively fair, whether one agrees on the Trump ban or not.
Way back when Trump was first making a name for himself in business all the way to his tenure in the Oval Office, he’s prided himself in being brash and pushing against the kinds of boundaries that contain most people. Once he’s let back on the platform, no doubt he’ll keep the Facebook Oversight Board busy.
In the end — like it or not — it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s business. Some may accuse him of playing politics, but in this country, we celebrate capitalism and First Amendment rights. He’s playing by the rules we currently have in place, something Trump has never learned to do.