By:
May 5, 2021

Earlier this week, while appearing on his own network, CNN’s Jake Tapper said why even interview some guests if they are just going to lie?

He’s right. If certain conservative lawmakers are going to perpetuate wild conspiracy theories, including the baseless allegation that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, why hand them a megaphone?

Facebook should apply that same stance when it comes to Trump.

If the former president is going to insist that the election was stolen, if he’s going to rile up his supporters and divide the country further, and if he’s going to use social media to create the kindling to ignite another dangerous explosion, why let him?

Why not just ban him — and ban him permanently — now?

Instead, sometime over the next six months, we’re going to go through this whole thing again as Facebook decides what to do about one of the most influential voices in the world and the tragic events of Jan. 6.

But let’s be clear. This entire mess involving Trump and social media goes back well before what happened on Jan. 6 when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have spent the past four years struggling with how to corral Trump and his posts. His constant lies and misleading comments — whether it be about the election, COVID-19 or whatever wild thought popped into his head at a given moment — often sent the social media companies scrambling. On a micro level, they had to figure out what to do with a specific tweet or post. On a macro level, they had to figure out how to handle someone who had no ethical compass and no interest in telling the truth.

While Twitter was quick to slap labels on tweets it deemed untruthful, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg early on took the stance that it wasn’t his company’s place to censor politicians, much to the chagrin and outrage of even his own employees. But Zuckerberg’s unpopular stance allowed him to avoid a much greater controversy, which was confronting what to do about Trump’s posts and how Facebook’s decisions would play with both Trump’s supporters and detractors. Zuckerberg’s view seemed to be one of avoidance: We’ll put it up and you guys decide what to make of it.

But, finally, something happened that led all the social media companies to a fork in the road: the insurrection on Jan. 6. As Trump used social media to tell rioters how special they were, Twitter and Facebook had no choice. A national crisis forced them to take a path that seems unbelievable when you really think about it. They banned the president of the United States.

Twitter’s ban is permanent. But Facebook’s ban was “indefinite,” and that led to what happened Wednesday.

The Facebook Oversight Board — seemingly designed to relieve Zuckerberg from the company’s most difficult decisions and responsibilities that go with them — upheld Trump’s suspension. But then they did the one thing that Zuckerberg likely didn’t expect or want. They punted the ultimate decision back to him, saying he and the company have six months to figure out Trump’s ultimate punishment, as well more clearly defining Facebook’s policies and punishments.

The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen wrote, “Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg thus has to make a series of fateful decisions that could change the future of his company. He will have to decide what penalty he imposes on Trump, and he will have to do so in the context of formulating a set of clear rules that govern all similar behavior by world leaders or others who have ‘influential accounts.’ He will not relish this decision.”

The Facebook Oversight Board called Trump’s suspension “vague and uncertain.”

Trump reacted about how you would expect him to, calling the decision, “a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our country. Free speech has been taken away from the president of the United States because the radical left lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before.”

The usual suspects — Sen. Tom Cotton, Rep. Lauren Boebert, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — chimed in with their support of Trump, talking about things like free speech and the First Amendment. Lawmakers threatened to go after Facebook. Conservative media railed against cancel culture and liberals run amok in an effort to silence Trump.

In its ruling, the oversight board wrote, “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension. It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”

How about these criteria? Trump has lied on Facebook for years and his lies have been irresponsible and dangerous. Shouldn’t that be enough to ban him for life?

You want a clear standard for punishment? Here it is: Don’t lie. Here’s more: If you’re going to incite and condone violence like the kind we saw on Jan. 6, then you lose the right to talk about your First Amendment rights. And you especially lose the opportunity to be on Facebook.

This isn’t about Trump’s politics. It’s about the danger he poses with his reckless words.

This isn’t Alex Jones we’re talking about, someone with no real power whose absurd words are immediately dismissed by most as coming from a crackpot. No, in this case, we’re talking about the former (and possible future) president of the United States who is still the most prominent voice of the Republican Party with millions upon millions of devoted followers.

His words have influence. His words have meaning. And, his words have consequences, as we have seen.

Even though Trump is now a so-called private citizen, he cannot be treated the same as your next-door neighbor. The rules need to be different for him. He has a greater responsibility than your neighbor or the Alex Joneses of the world. If he’s not going to take that responsibility seriously then Facebook needs to.

Trump continues to push false narratives about the election. Just the other day, he put out a statement about “The Big Lie,” referring to the 2020 election. In statements and comments since leaving the White House, Trump has shown he will continue to push unproven theories and harmful lies.

But don’t look at this as preemptive punishment. This isn’t banning him for what he might say in the future. This is banning him for all the things he has said in the past.

Does Facebook really need another six months to figure that out?

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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