Trump banned from Facebook (again)

Plus, a question about gun rights in America.
Isaac Saul May 6, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Donald Trump’s Facebook ban. Plus, a question about gun rights in America.

President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a "Make America Great Again" campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Goodyear, Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore

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Quick hits.

  1. President Biden suspended patents on coronavirus vaccines, taking an extraordinary step to waive intellectual property protections and allow drugmakers to access information on how vaccines have been made. (The New York Times)
  2. American consumers and businesses face an array of shocking shortages in 2021 — the result of corporate miscalculations in the early days of the pandemic. (Axios)
  3. The Texas legislature is set to vote on an election bill that would increase criminal penalties for voting irregularities. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  4. The Centers for Disease Control released a strikingly optimistic paper on the coronavirus pandemic, saying it could be nearing its end, so long as Americans continue to get vaccinated and maintain certain mitigation strategies in the coming months. (The Washington Post)
  5. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), facing a vote to be removed from her leadership post, published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling on Republicans to “choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.” (The Washington Post, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Donald Trump. Yesterday, a Facebook-appointed panel of journalists, activists and lawyers upheld the social network’s ban of the former president, opting to keep him off the platform for at least another six months. That decision comes after weeks of speculation and deliberation about what the platform would do, and has once again ignited a debate about the power these platforms have.

Trump was banned from the platform in January after repeatedly questioning the results of the presidential election. Just hours before rioters stormed the Capitol building, Trump wrote on Facebook that “Our Country has had enough, they won’t take it anymore!” Less than 24 hours later, Facebook barred him from the platform. His last post, which is still up, read, “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence!”

The board, which was created as an oversight tool for the company, ruled that the initial ban was justified. But it also said that an indefinite suspension was “not appropriate” and that there is no clear penalty of that kind defined in Facebook’s policies. In other words, it pushed Facebook executives to make a decision on a time-bound suspension or permanent ban. The board gave Facebook six months to make that decision.

“Our sole job is to hold this extremely powerful organization, Facebook, accountable,” Michael McConnell, co-chair of the Oversight Board, said on a call with reporters. He added that the ban on Trump “did not meet these standards.” However, critics of the board have said that while the panel is made to look independent, it was founded by Facebook and has no legal or enforcement authority. Many view it as a way for Facebook to deflect responsibility for controversial decisions.

In a response to the news, Trump attacked Facebook, along with Google and Twitter (YouTube, a Google subsidiary, and Twitter have both banned him as well). “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth,” he wrote.

Below, we’ll take a look at some arguments from the left and right about how Facebook is handling the ban.


What the right is saying.

The right is critical of Facebook for censoring Trump, but also for deflecting responsibility and contradictory enforcement.

The New York Post editorial board said CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly promised to be hands-off on political speech, “But his woke employees differed, publicly declaring he should ban Trump long before the Capitol riot.”

“Indeed, the board’s ruling called the company out: ‘In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities.’ So: ‘The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty,’” the board noted. But of course Facebook has no consistent standards — indeed, has never policed hate or obscenity in any consistent way.

“Burma’s government used the platform to fuel its genocide against the Rohingya; Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has admitted the company didn’t do enough to stop it,” the board said. “You can find both Islamic State recruitment propaganda and anti-Muslim attacks on the platform. Civil rights group Muslim Advocates sued Facebook last month, saying the company’s insistence that it removes hate speech is ‘false and deceptive.’ It notes a professor alerted the company to the anti-Muslim groups she’d found on Facebook; rather than remove them, Facebook made that sort of research nearly impossible for outsiders. Facebook even blocked The Post’s Hunter Biden reporting in October. Andy Stone, its policy communications manager with a long history in Democratic politics, bragged about it on Twitter (which has permanently banned Trump), though neither the Bidens nor anyone else has ever refuted the facts in our laptop exposé.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “Facebook reneged on its commitment to free expression when it banned Donald Trump ‘indefinitely’ from the platform in the panic surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.”

“Wednesday’s decision was the board’s first big test, and it mostly punted,” they said. “President Trump has been off the platform for four months since he promoted false claims of a stolen election and encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol to change the outcome… We said at the time that the President’s conduct was impeachable. Yet unprecedented acts like his removal from social media—and even more egregious censorship such as the coordinated Big Tech assault on the free-speech social-media platform Parler—likely caused more Republican voters and politicians to rally around the President…

“It’s no defense of Mr. Trump’s conduct to say that the digital public square shouldn’t suppress speech by political leaders,” it wrote. “Nor is such a position even in the Republican Party’s interest given his attacks on other Republicans that would be amplified on Facebook. The oversight board advises that ‘Facebook must resist pressure from governments to silence their political opposition.’ But this is already happening in the U.S., as Democrats in Congress use their legal leverage over social-media platforms to press for censorship. This is a graver threat to democracy than Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Mr. Zuckerberg needs the courage of his professed convictions.”

Jonathan Turley wrote in Fox News: “The board’s position on the standardless policy on permanent bans ignores that its temporary suspension policy is equally standardless. The company cited the response to Trump’s speech by third parties as opposed to a specific call by Trump to commit violence. It does not take the same position when similar words are used by figures like Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., during protests…

“What is most alarming is that Facebook, Twitter, and other companies have been defended by Democratic leaders, writers and academics,” he added. “Indeed, the Atlantic published an article by Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods calling for Chinese-style censorship of the internet. They declared that ‘in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong’ and ‘significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet.’”


What the left is saying.

The left is critical of the board for not making the ban permanent, though they ultimately lay the blame at the feet of Facebook’s executives.

In The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan said Trump deserved a permanent ban.

“In more than 1,400 posts from Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump used Facebook to spread false information with devastating consequences for the country,” she wrote. “He planted falsehoods about the pandemic. He relentlessly lied about the supposedly rigged presidential election. He attacked his critics with violent rhetoric. It was not a close call in January to suspend him indefinitely from the world’s largest social media platform, with nearly 3 billion user accounts. The insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 made that obvious.

“And it should not have been a close call — or anything to agonize about — for Facebook to keep him off the platform permanently,” she added. “Last July, for example, Trump posted that U.S. deaths from the coronavirus were ‘just about the lowest in the world,’ and that they were ‘way down, a tenfold decrease’ from the height of the pandemic. In fact, the country was just entering a deadly summer surge of infections. Last spring, he used Facebook to defend his horrendous comments about civil rights protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis: ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’ And on New Year’s Day, Trump’s Facebook posts called on his followers to ‘stop the steal’ and promoted the ‘BIG protest rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6.’ Facebook finally suspended his account when that rally provoked a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.”

In The New York Times, Kara Swisher wrote that she considers “the case of Mr. Trump to be much less complex than people seem to think.”

“And it has been made to appear highly complicated by big tech companies like Facebook because they want to exhaust us all in a noisy and intractable debate,” she wrote. “Mr. Trump should be seen as an outlier — a lone, longtime rule breaker who was coddled and protected on social media platforms until he wandered into seditious territory. He’s an unrepentant gamer of Facebook’s badly enforced rules who will never change. He got away with it for years and spread myriad self-serving lies far and wide.

“The main problem is that Facebook has offloaded important decisions, like that of Mr. Trump’s fate on the platform, to its Oversight Board, an unwieldy and ultimately ineffective body that makes the United Nations look decisive,” she added. “The board is apparently independent — but it’s a system essentially created by Facebook. It’s paid for by Facebook, and its members are picked by Facebook. It’s a glorified corporate advisory board of just 20 people who have made a key decision for the rest of us. And it appears as if the board members realized that this decision was not theirs to make.

“Agreed. This lazy abrogation of responsibility by the Facebook leadership is par for the course for the most hopelessly compromised company in tech, which has bungled controversies for years.”

In Slate, Rebecca MacKinnon said the board did the best it could.

“The board members make no claim to oversee how Facebook Inc. operates as a company,” she said. “They have no power to impose penalties on company executives for actions that are in good faith assumed to be mistakes—but which in some situations can have massive and sometimes irreversible impact on lives and livelihoods. The board also cannot compel Facebook to provide information. Facebook executives are free to decline requests for information that the board deems necessary to understand the context of their cases. In the Trump case, Facebook flatly declined to answer seven of the 46 questions asked by the board, many of them related to the company’s targeted advertising business model, algorithmic amplification system, and communications between company staff and political officeholders.”


My take.

This is really not a simple issue. I don’t envy the position of anyone involved in trying to decide what to do. And since there are enough authoritative voices pretending that there is a clear and obvious choice to be made here, I’m not going to add to that cacophony of hubris.

Here’s what I will say, though:

First, this is not an issue of free speech. This has nothing to do with government overreach. Demands that this case be taken to the Supreme Court are farcical. Trump, like every other user on Facebook, has to behave on the platform within the boundaries of the platform’s rules. During the riots at the Capitol, Trump posted on Facebook to address the rioters: “We love you. You’re very special,” he said in one post. In another, he called them “great patriots” and insisted they “remember this day forever.” Facebook’s oversight board said these posts violated the platform’s Community Standards, which prohibit praising or encouraging violence. I’d agree. The videos, despite including calls to be peaceful, sounded more like a pep talk for a mob that had already breached the Capitol.

Second, it’s also true that millions of other users probably violate these Community Standards without punishment every day. Many of the contradictions are listed in the columns above. But those users aren’t the President of the United States, which means there are far fewer eyeballs to spot their violations, fewer people reporting them, and almost no pressure to take action. It’s not some great big mystery why these contradictions exist.

It’s also true that many people do get banned from Facebook for violating the same rules Trump did, often in a more timely fashion. The idea that he’s being “targeted” is absurd. He was the President of the United States — he’s kind of hard to miss. On the whole, Facebook’s “woke” employees and its left-leaning oversight board have not stopped the platform from being a boon for conservative thinkers, who dominate the lists of Facebook’s most popular posts every single day.

Third, I’m not buying the left’s claim that suspending Trump somehow “worked.” Research showing that there’s less misinformation on social media or less talk about Trump ignores the reality that two-thirds of Republicans still believe the lie Facebook and others were purportedly trying to put to bed. Not just that — but these consumers have not simply logged off. They’ve just migrated to other platforms and space: messaging apps, Parler, YouTube, or watching OAN and Newsmax. Many are just going to exist in “safe” spaces where there is no legitimate dissent to their views. The bubble has not been popped — it has just been migrated.

All of this, of course, is on top of the fact that the Capitol protests were organized and promoted not just by Trump and his allies, but by a cast of characters — from Alex Jones to Roger Stone to Michael Flynn — who had already been “deplatformed” in various ways.

As I’ve written before, I do not think banning controversial figures is a healthy way to moderate the internet. This platform, Tangle, is rooted in the belief that competing views and debate are healthy and good. But that doesn’t mean Trump can break Facebook’s rules with impunity, even if there are other violators who never face repercussions. It does mean he can use the platform to sling mud, lie, bloviate and play politics the same way dozens of other high profile pundits and politicians do. I don’t think keeping him off the platform is “improving the discourse” or “healing the nation” or any of the other high-minded claims the left makes about this decision.

Facebook is in a horribly challenging spot, and they’re there both because Trump relishes being a troll and instigating his followers and because Facebook’s policies are unclear and enforced unevenly. Given the hand it was dealt, I think the board’s decision is fine — but I also don’t think a permanent ban is tenable or likely. I suspect Trump will be back on the platform in six months, and unless Facebook clarifies its policies and enforces them more consistently before then, we’ll be right back where we started.


Your questions, answered.

Q: As someone who lives in a country with little to no firearms, how in your mind do you justify the public ownership of something that has the capacity to do so much harm? Do you believe that the right to bear arms is comparable to other 'inalienable' rights like free speech? Or is it something else entirely?

— Anya, Melbourne, Australia

Tangle: There’s no real hierarchy of rights in the United States, so it doesn’t matter whether I view it as equally inalienable as free speech — it just is (unless we amend the Constitution). I personally value my right to free speech far more than I value my right to bear arms, but I see good reason for each.

I think the strongest justifications for public ownership of firearms are the same as they’ve always been: they enable people to protect themselves from other individuals and the government.

Obviously, America has a huge gun violence issue. I’ve written about it repeatedly and will continue to. I think the “status quo” of what we have now is completely and clearly inadequate, and many things need to change. I also think advocates for a gun-free future tend to ignore the hundreds of thousands of self-defense incidents that occur every year thanks to firearms. The CDC estimates that there are between 500,000 and three million incidents every year where victims of crime use firearms to defend themselves. That is one reason why gun ownership is so popular.

While I think it’s a little silly for people to imagine their .22 rifle and 10 friends with shotguns would ever protect them from the U.S. government (if, say, the military actually ever turned on the citizenry), I don’t think it’s silly to note that all across America firearms are a tool for protection, hunting, self-sufficiency, and so on. And, to be totally frank with you: they’re also fun. Thousands of Americans experience hunting or target shooting the same way they do boating or dirt biking — it’s a hobby, a sport, and it’s exhilarating to participate in.

Also, it’s worth noting that while we don’t have guaranteed rights to these things, there’s widespread public ownership of things that have the “capacity to do so much harm.” From vehicles to painkillers to propane tanks, it’s a slippery slope when you start thinking about how to limit the use of things that have the capacity to do harm. As I’ve said in the past, though, driving a car requires training, licensing, insurance and certification — all things I believe gun ownership in the U.S. would benefit from.

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Blindspot report.

Tangle has very few partners because we are very careful about who we work with. One of them isGround News, an exceptional app and website that tracks the political biases in news reporting. I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what you were likely to miss based on your political leanings and the news feed bubble you’ve created for yourself.

If you’re on the left, you probably missed a story about the FBI investigating a masked anarchist who threatened Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

If you’re on the right, you probably missed a story about new satellite images showing the world’s glaciers melting faster than ever.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


A story that matters.

On Wednesday, a federal judge vacated a nationwide freeze on evictions that was put in place by health officials to help cash-strapped renters stay in their homes during the pandemic. The ruling was a win for a group of property owners and realtors who had challenged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s authority to impose an eviction moratorium. The ban began during President Trump’s tenure and was extended by the Biden administration through June. U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee, ruled that the temporary ban exceeded the CDC’s authority. Corporate landlords have filed 56,000 eviction actions since the pause took effect last September. (The Hill)


Numbers.

  • 30%. The percentage of U.S. lands and water the Biden administration is aiming to conserve by 2030.
  • 1.3 billion. The number of accounts Facebook banned in three months between October and December 2020.
  • 49%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say Trump’s accounts should be permanently banned from social media.
  • 50%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say Trump’s accounts should NOT be permanently banned from social media.
  • 11%. The percentage of Republicans/lean-Republicans who say Trump’s accounts should be permanently banned from social media.
  • 18%. The percentage of Democrats/lean-Democratic who say Trump’s accounts should NOT be permanently banned from social media.

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Thank you!

— Isaac and the Tangle team


Have a nice day.

Juan Rivera spent almost 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. And during that time, he spent endless hours talking with a prison guard about the future he was planning for himself when he was finally vindicated. In 2012, Rivera’s conviction was overturned in one of the most infamous wrongful prosecution cases in Chicago history. He received a $20 million settlement. Now, a decade later, Rivera is following through on his dream: he and that prison guard, Bobby Mattison, are opening a barber shop together. The shop is also offering a barber school for high school and college students in the area. (Block Club Chicago)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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