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With Trump Decision, Facebook’s Problems Don’t Get Any Easier

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Gerald F. Seib: Facebook’s independent oversight board upheld the company’s decision to ban then-President Donald Trump from its platform, and said the company’s decision was justified. This means that Mr. Trump will not regain his megaphone on Facebook or Instagram for the foreseeable future. However, the oversight board also ruled it was inappropriate for Facebook to indefinitely suspend Mr. Trump, and gave the company six months to determine an appropriate penalty for former President Trump and clearly outline its policies for suspending influential users.

Gerald F. Seib

Christopher Mims

It seems to me that, yes, the president’s Facebook page is going to be suspended. But another way of looking at it is that the company punted this sensitive issue to the oversight board and the oversight board is now punting it back.

Christopher Mims: This is an instance of what some might call malicious compliance. The Facebook oversight board is behaving exactly as it was designed. Basically they said, “Hey, you don’t have laws or rules that cover the specific thing that you did, which was a permanent ban. You need to establish those because our entire remit is to evaluate whether or not you are following your own rules.” I think, explicitly, they created the oversight board because they didn’t want to have to make the final determination in these matters, but now they do again.

Seib: Now that the hot potato is back in Facebook’s hands, will they now have to come up with some clear guidelines—not just for former President Trump but for political speech in general?

Facebook’s independent oversight board said the company was justified when it banned former President Trump following the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, but gave Facebook six months to decide on a permanent ban. WSJ’s Brad Reagan explains what comes next. Photo: Andre M. Chang/Zuma Press

Mims: I think they will. Facebook is a technology company, and they are always kind of winging it when it comes to these content questions. All of the reporting The Wall Street Journal and others have done about how these decisions are made internally—it’s a messy process. So they are going to have to establish their standards.

Seib: This is really important in the tech world. It’s also really important in the political world. The bigger megaphone for then-President Trump—now private-citizen Trump—has been

Twitter.

That’s the platform from which he got the most reach for whatever he had to say. But as a political tool, Facebook was probably way more important to the Trump campaigns in 2016 and 2020—as a fundraising tool, as an organizing tool and as a grassroots-motivating tool. I guarantee you the president’s friends down in Mar-a-Lago, the people who are thinking about his political future along with him, were paying a lot of attention [to the decision].

Mims: When I interviewed

Brad Parscale,

head of that strategy for Trump before Trump was elected, his organization was really the master of the small-dollar donations. That also makes a big difference for candidates like Bernie Sanders, but for Trump, it was absolutely essential. So even though Facebook only represented maybe 35 or 40 million people out of his audience of 150 million online—and Twitter represented a much greater proportion—Facebook was in some ways the more devastating blow.

Now, in terms of how the other platforms have to deal with this, they have advantages and disadvantages. Twitter has made it explicit that their decisions about this are not so much editorial, but here are very explicit guidelines that they themselves are setting and enforcing. It leaves anyone who objects to this ban in an awkward position because traditionally small “c” conservatives don’t want to regulate businesses, especially not in the matter of content. But it’s at the point now where these platforms have to be clear what sort of material they’re going to allow and what they’re not going to. So I think that’s why you have folks like

Josh Hawley

saying we need to break these companies up.

Seib: Social-media companies are at a kind of inflection point here. Are they publishing companies that want to assume the legal responsibility of publishers? Or are they common carriers that have to accept the regulation that common carriers put up with? Up till now it seems to me they want to be both and neither at the same time.

This is the sort of issue that forces them to a decision, but it’s being forced upon them in a very uncomfortable political environment, particularly on the right. You’ve mentioned Josh Hawley, you know, the [Republican] senator from Missouri who’s been basically on an anti-Big Tech jihad for a couple of years now, and it’s getting more intense. He has out now a new book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” He is essentially saying they’re too big, they’re too monopolistic and harmful to free speech in this country. And this is why today’s ruling is particularly important.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted out, “A House Republican majority will rein in Big Tech power over our speech.” So he’s drawing a direct line between conservatives like Donald Trump being censored by Facebook in their view and the Republican Party setting out to regulate and dismantle Big Tech when they have the power to do so.

Mims: He’s saying, “We’re going to take the House and if we do and we have a president who will sign this legislation, that’s how we’ll rein them in.” I can’t assess the likelihood of any of those outcomes, but I can say that for now clearly there’s going to be paralysis. While regulating Big Tech is an issue with a great deal of bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats have completely different sets of concerns. Republicans are much more concerned about speech issues. Democrats seem to be much more concerned about competition. And there doesn’t seem to be much overlap in terms of the kind of legislation that’s been proposed.

Donald Trump and Social Media

Seib: I think that philosophically there is the potential for some overlap because Democrats and progressives tend to be as distrustful of big power, particularly big-business power, as populists in the new Republican party are. The fact that there has been this war between Donald Trump and social media has put that off a little bit, but I think over time you could see left and right come together.

One last thing I wanted to ask you was, there has been this talk—in Trump-world in particular—about creating new social-media companies. Parler is kind of out there already as a conservative alternative to Twitter and Facebook. On the one hand, it’s not that hard probably to start your own social-media company. On the other hand, it seems really hard. I’m not an industry expert, which is why I’m asking you.

Mims: It is very easy to build a new social-media platform. It is extraordinarily difficult to moderate a new social-media platform. The internet automatically trends toward content that will instantly get you banned from every app store, as happened to Parler. Moderation is this incredibly challenging mountain of a task that is not amenable to strictly automated solutions. Facebook has all these elaborate systems for doing that, plus they have the best AI scientists in the world working on that as well. For Parler, for example, to try and match that is extraordinarily difficult. It’s harder than setting up a new television network—and more expensive.

Seib: You know the reaction from Mar-a-Lago has shown that President Trump is furious that he hasn’t been given his Facebook page back. But part of me thinks that today is actually making him really happy in one way: Between this controversy and the controversy in the House where

Liz Cheney

is about to be stripped of her position as the number-three leader—because she won’t buy into the Trump narrative about what happened in the 2020 election—has Donald Trump once again back where he likes to be, which is at the center of controversy.

—To hear the full conversation and listen to Jerry and Christopher answer questions from the audience, check out the Live Q&A page. And for more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com and Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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