Banning Trump from Facebook Won’t Solve the Problem

Even without Trump, Facebook is a cesspool of dangerous conspiracy theories

Yesterday, for the first time in the six weeks since my son was born, I woke up for something other than a diaper change. The occasion for missing out on some much-needed sleep was Facebook’s pending decision on Donald Trump’s indefinite suspension from the platform after inciting a violent insurrection. While Twitter permanently banned Trump, Facebook, which loves to cozy up to the world’s worst people, temporarily suspended Trump without really explaining anything about the process for doing so, when the decision would be revisited, and what criteria would be used. As it tends to do, Facebook angered everyone. Trump lovers were mad that he was being held to account for breaking the rules, and everyone else was mad that Facebook was wishy-washy about their platform being used to spread violent authoritarian agitprop.

Eventually, Mark Zuckerberg punted the decision to the Facebook Oversight Board, a putatively independent commission selected and compensated by Facebook. The Commission was scheduled to announce their decision at 9:00 AM eastern time. This ruling from this very fake court was highly anticipated. In addition to answering the question of whether Donald Trump would be able to resume polluting our public discourse, this ruling was seen as a potential precedent that could be followed by platforms beyond Facebook for politicians beyond just Trump.

Despite all the pomp and circumstance, the Oversight Board did what advisory commissions with no actual power tend to do — they punted. As Charlie Warzel wrote in Galaxy Brain, his excellent newsletter:

The Board did the thing journalists do when their piece is more boring than they want it to be — they jacked up the headline so its sharable and buried the actual, more nuanced lede in paragraph three. The gist is that the board doesn’t like Facebook’s “indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension” and wants Facebook to review the matter and make a decision that can be applied to all violating users within six months.

In other words, Trump is still off Facebook for at least the next few months, and the decision is once again Zuckerberg’s. While I experienced more than a little schadenfreude at the hot potato ending up back in Zuck’s lap, my takeaway from this whole debacle of indecision is that the question of whether Trump gets back on Facebook is a distraction from the much bigger problem of Facebook as a pro-Trumpism platform.

Bans Matter, but Less Than We Think

Don’t get me wrong, the less Trump, the better. I want him off Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, and everywhere else. I would like to see him banned from Mar-a-Lago if only so those people could get married in peace without Trump crashing the wedding and offering unsolicited election laments disguised as terrible toasts. There is no question that being removed from these platforms has reduced his ability to shape the political conversation. Without Twitter, in particular, Trump is left to send out these long, nonsensical statements, which end being punchlines instead of headlines.

Trump’s absence makes our news consumption more enjoyable. There is less gasoline poured on raging fires. Trump being removed from social media has probably saved lives, but his influence over American politics has not waned. Within the Republican Party, his influence may be stronger than ever. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the daughter of a two-term Republican Vice President, is in the process of being dumped from House Leadership for the mortal sin of being unwilling to lie about the integrity of the election. Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, was booed off the stage at the Republican Convention in Utah for being insufficiently pro-Trump. A recent CNN poll found that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe Biden won enough votes to be President. Trump’s control over the party is much broader and stronger and depends on factors much bigger than his ability to pop off on social media.

A Festering Swamp of Trumpism

I am glad Trump is still off Facebook, but the anticipation for this decision and the narrow focus on Trump obscures two much larger problems.

First, whether Trump has an official page or not is somewhat beside the point. With or without Trump, Facebook is a festering swamp of Trumpism. An hour or so after the decision, Kevin Roose of the New York Times sent out his daily autogenerated tweet with the top-performing link Facebook posts in the U.S. Per usual, it was a horror show. The top three posts are all from Ben Shapiro. The top ten also include two from Dan Bongino, two from Fox News, and one from Sean Hannity.

For all of the conservative complaints about “Big Tech,” Facebook’s algorithm rewards Right Wing propaganda over all other content. This algorithmic perversion of the political discourse is the source of much of what ills our country. Rewarding this content is a choice that Facebook has made for reasons of profit and politics. That will still be true even if Trump’s suspension remains in place.

Second, Facebook is too big and too powerful to be held accountable. The company has been subject to huge, well-coordinated boycotts becoming something of a pariah. Millions have deleted the app in protest. Yet, the company just reported another quarter of massive earnings growth.

As Zephyr Teachout wrote yesterday in the Daily Beast reacting to the decision:

The minute we start anticipating a corporate decision with the intensity that we anticipated today’s decision is the minute we should realize Facebook is way too powerful. It controls the faucets on the flow of information, and decides which news stories thrive and which ones are hidden, what is scientifically backed Covid advice and what is not, what is terrorism and what is expression and what constitutes a conspiracy and what does not. And it does all this based on cash flow.

We still don’t know how much money it made on Qanon posts (billions?) but so long as we are fighting about whether or not to ban those posts, instead of fighting about whether we, as a society, should allow the arteries of information to be controlled by a business model that will keep propagating new conspiracies, we are having the wrong debate.

Over the next several months, there will be multiple efforts to pressure Facebook to keep Trump off the platform. I will support them all and hope they succeed, but I want us all to keep focused on the bigger problem of Facebook’s role in spreading conspiracy theories and radicalizing segments of the American public. Like with everything else in American political, its too easy to focus on the dangers of Donald Trump at the expense of trying to address the existential threat of Trumpism run amok.