By Becky Bohrer
Facebook may have hoped that life in Washington would get easier after its appointed oversight board ruled on former US president Donald Trump’s fate on the social network.
Instead, it is facing a whole new round of censure, especially from the right – months after the company suspended Trump over his remarks during the deadly January 6 attack on the Capitol, triggering calls from conservative lawmakers to break up, rein in or otherwise restrain the world’s biggest social media network.
And that means Facebook’s political threats from Republicans may be poised to get a lot worse, at a time when the pro-Trump wing of the party is feeling especially emboldened. Wednesday’s board decision arrived just as the former president’s supporters were poised to oust an anti-Trump apostate from their House leadership, with Trump’s vocal endorsement, and days after a squeeze on Democratic seats gave Republicans new reason to feel optimistic about their chances of reclaiming Congress next year.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy issued a warning in response to the ruling on Wednesday: “A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech.”
Now Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg face as much as six more months of public wrangling over a Trump controversy they had hoped to put behind them.
“It has blown up in their faces,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of the left-leaning group Common Sense Media, adding that the board basically said to Facebook. “We’re kicking it back to you.”
The oversight board issued a mixed decision Wednesday, upholding Trump’s suspension but directing Facebook to revisit what the panel called the company’s “arbitrary” and “vague” decision-making. That puts the tech behemoth in the same unenviable spot it found itself in January: having to make a massive-yet-controversial call on how to handle accusations that Trump used its platform to help spark an insurrection.
The immediate result – Trump’s continued absence from Facebook’s 2.7-billion-member platform – fanned Republicans’ grievances about so-called cancel culture and allegations that the tech industry is biased against conservatives. And the ruling could deal more lasting damage if it serves to coalesce Republicans around a strategy to attack the company and its Silicon Valley cohorts.
There are indications that’s already happening.
Irate over Trump’s latest muzzling on social media, Republicans flashed signs on Wednesday of warming to legal changes once thought off-limits for the traditionally business-friendly party, all to curtail Facebook’s conduct.
Congressman Steve Scalise, the No 2 House Republican, gave a notable boost to calls for Congress to update US antitrust laws, which until now have largely only gained traction among the populist, anti-Big Tech wing of the party. “Big Tech has a choice: Have the same standards for ALL – or – we look at antitrust laws to limit their monopolistic power,” he tweeted.
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, voiced support for legislation to treat social media companies as common carriers, a dramatic move that could strip them of their ability to exclude certain users from their services. That echoed a recent suggestion from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who used a recent case to express alarm about the “control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties”.
“Even with rank and file voters right now, there’s just a serious distrust of the system, and I think that’s why you’re seeing the fight against Big Tech censorship as priority issues,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank.
Republican strategists and activists said the lawmakers’ remarks are emblematic of the shifting tides in the party against the power of the Big Tech companies, which are beginning to converge around possible avenues to strike back at Silicon Valley companies. That includes efforts to revamp US antitrust laws and to roll back the liability shield that protects digital platforms from lawsuits over the content of users’ posts.
It’s a progression from the Republican attacks against Silicon Valley during the Trump era, which saw support for those changes pick up significant steam only during his final months in office.
“Republicans are still moving past where they were four years ago, which is openly defending Big Tech, to two years ago, where it was [Senator] Josh Hawley out on a limb,” said Schweppe. “And now I think it’s become the mainstream view of the party that something needs to be done. So we just have to figure out what that policy is specifically going to be.”
“Republicans are responding to the evidence that just keeps piling up that there’s a market distortion, there’s a power imbalance [in Big Tech] and they’re looking at what tools are available to them,” said Rachel Bovard, senior policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute.
The Facebook oversight board’s ruling marked an immediate setback to Trump’s potential campaign fundraising efforts ahead of a 2024 run, by at least temporarily shutting off his access to the platform’s powerful organising tools. Still, conservative leaders made the case Wednesday that the party could harness accusations that Silicon Valley is stifling conservatives to rally support ahead of the 2022 midterms, and potentially even take back the House.
“@facebook thank you for securing the GOP majority come 2022,” tweeted Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
The ordeal also emboldened Facebook’s critics on the left, who seized on the ruling Wednesday to call for more sweeping government action against the platform. While the board upheld the ban on Trump’s account, fulfilling a long-standing wish among some liberal advocacy groups and officials, Democratic lawmakers indicated they were largely unimpressed by the quasi-judicial proceedings. And they said it underscored the need for the federal government to take a more active role in policing the platforms, rather than letting Facebook regulate itself.
“While this is a welcome step by Facebook, the reality is that bad actors still have the ability to exploit and weaponise the platform,” Democrat Senator Mark Warner said in a statement. “Policymakers ultimately must address the root of these issues, which includes pushing for oversight and effective moderation mechanisms to hold platforms accountable for a business model that spreads real-world harm.”
At the same time, critics of the company cautioned that as long as a political lightning rod like Trump is at the centre of Facebook’s problems, it could make it harder to find agreement in Washington about how to respond.
“When Donald Trump is in the conversation, we’re talking about political speech, we’re talking about content moderation, we’re talking about individual things that people say,” not the company’s broader structural problems, said Rashad Robinson, CEO of the racial justice group Colour of Change.