Open season: Facebook "supreme court" now accepting social-media hot takes on Trump's banishment

What could go wrong? This might end up creating Inception levels of moderation and enforcement by the time it’s over.

On the plus side, the weekend’s blogging potential is looking up!

The independent group that will decide whether former President Donald Trump can return to Facebook is officially taking public comment on the case.

Facebook’s Oversight Board, a group that includes legal experts and human rights advocates, said in an announcement Friday that people and groups with “valuable perspectives” on Trump’s indefinite suspension from the social media platform have until Feb. 8 to weigh in via its online form.

The group has until April to decide on whether to reinstate the former president’s Facebook account, which the company froze after a throng of his supporters sacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, and will use the public comments as part of its deliberation process. The board, often likened to a “supreme court” for Facebook, has the power to overrule content decisions by CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his executives.

“It’s an important case, and so we’ll work as quickly as we can, consistent with deciding the case in a principled and consistent way,” Jamal Greene, a Columbia Law School professor and co-chair of the body, told POLITICO. “We’ll all work hard to decide it as quickly as we can do responsibly.”

How exactly will the public comments be moderated — if they are at all? Will Facebook’s Oversight Board penalize users who submit abusive comments or misinformation in the same way Facebook has acted with Trump? If so, do these users get the same ability to appeal back to the Oversight Board for reinstatement? Presumably that would be the process, but if those appeals also get public comment, the process could soon resemble an M.C. Escher painting.

Hopefully, the Oversight Board has a thicker skin than Facebook does. The first signals are at least somewhat promising, as the Washington Post reported yesterday. Their first five cases resulted in four reversals of Facebook actions against their users:

Facebook’s new Oversight Board found company content moderation policies vague and poorly communicated in its first set of decisions released Thursday, overruling the company’s actions in four of the five cases it decided in its initial round of cases.

The actions covered a range of issues that have vexed social media companies — alleged hate speech, coronavirus misinformation and references to dangerous organizations and people — and included one case in which an automated detection system apparently overreacted to an image of an uncovered female nipple in a breast cancer awareness campaign.

Taken together, the rulings suggest the oversight board is going to demand greater clarity and transparency from Facebook in the tiny sliver of cases it chooses to review. The board is also weighing Facebook’s ban of President Donald Trump following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, though a decision in that case is not likely for months. The five cases decided Thursday all date to October or November of last year.

The board — which was launched last year and is funded by Facebook — is intended to function as a “Supreme Court” where the toughest decisions about free expression online can be decided and is considered a potential alternative to the regulation of the social media industry that is being considered by governments all over the world, including the United States. It’s composed of 20 members, including a former prime minister, a Nobel laureate, as well as journalists and legal experts from 16 nations.

It’s great that they’re forcing Facebook into specificity on its rules of engagement for the rest of its users. The composition of the board doesn’t sound like a favorable environment for Trump, however. How many “fake news” insults will it take to exhaust the Oversight Board’s members from the media?

That question brings up another. Let’s say the Oversight Board is inclined to order Trump’s reinstatement. They might very well be based on yesterday’s decisions, as Facebook was hardly specific about Trump’s violations in banishing him. How long will it take after reinstatement before the Oversight Board has to consider Trump all over again — a year? Six months? Two weeks?  The public comments they get about Trump might be just as exhausting as Trump himself, too — which is the reason why this idea to open up comments seems a bit odd. Why not just have Trump and Facebook duke it out in opposing briefs before this court?

For now, though, the rest of us can sit back and watch the inevitable. Have fun storming the castle, people! Just remember that it will likely take a miracle in this instance, too.