In my household, we see a certain irony in the return of Donald Trump to Facebook. Trump is back, despite urging on the fatal Capitol riot (and today, apparently urging a nuclear strike against Russia). Meanwhile, a friend of mine is banned, and unable to even find out why.
Donald Trump posted false claims that the 2020 election was rigged, praised violent protesters, and laid into former vice-president Mike Pence - even as the mob threatened his life. For that, he was expelled from Meta's platforms. Today, he has been welcomed back.
Meanwhile, my friend, a Church of England vicar, one day found her Facebook account blocked. She still has no idea what Meta thinks she did wrong. She has had no explanation. She has no avenue to discuss or protest the ban. And, unlike the ex-President, all her former postings on the platform have been removed.
Business as usual
This might sound strange, but it's not really surprising.
Many people treat Facebook and the other Meta platforms, Instagram and WhatsApp, as if they are safe and effective communications services, but they aren't. Users have no workable contracts or service agreements, there is no effective moderation of content. Facebook allows things at its whim, and for its own benefit. If you're not paying, and not delivering revenue, you have no rights.
Earlier this month, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) found that Meta had breached the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), by using customer data for behavioral advertising without proper free consent. Meta has a contract to deliver communications services to its users, and falsely argued that the consent was necessary to deliver that. This was untrue: its use of data was necessary for Facebook's advertising, not for users' communication.
That's how Facebook operates. It's about advertising, not communications.
When we send letters or emails or make phone calls, we are communicating using a communications service. When we do those things on Facebook (or other platforms such as WhatsApp, and the non-Meta platform Twitter) we are communicating on a platform that only appears to be a communications service.
My friend used to organize and publicize Parish events using Facebook as one tool. On the same account, she chattered with family and friends. We simply cannot think of anything offensive about her feed - unless jumble sales or environmental advocacy somehow break a code of conduct that Facebook hasn't discussed.
When her account was locked, it was not a time-out, where some users sometimes get locked out for 30 days. It was instant and permanent. She was offered no explanation, simply a link to request a review.
On her behalf, I attempted to help, using a channel not many people have access to - Facebook's internal PR team. After initially offering to look into it, they said there was nothing they could do. Even sympathetic insiders were apparently unable to help against the mechanism which evicted my friend from the service.
Town Square to Town Dump
Trump's return was explained by one Nick Clegg, who said that "the public should be able to hear what politicians are saying so they can make informed choices," explaining that Trump had been banned for two years, that now was the time to allow him to return, and that there will be safeguards against Trump abusing the platform in the way he previously did.
As I write this, Trump's most recent "truth" on TruthSocial reads: "FIRST COME THE TANKS, THEN COME THE NUKES. Get this crazy war ended, NOW. So easy to do!"
Clegg may be slightly plausible, but it seems more likely that Meta wants Trump back for financial reasons. Facebook's market standing is shaky. If it can persuade Trump to post again, that will mean clicks and advertising revenue. Of course, it's not guaranteed that he will - he's somewhat tied to his own "Truth Social" platform, and hoping to make money from that himself.
(Meanwhile, the same goes for Twitter, where Trump is back, alongside more controversial figures like Andrew Tate - though Trump has yet to tweet again).
It's somewhat strange to have Nick Clegg deliver this ruling. He's Meta's president of global affairs now, but it's only 12 years ago that he was a politician, serving as Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, in the David Cameron administration. Back then, he praised social media's role in the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings in Suria, Egypt and Libya, and other Middle Eastern nations, where protesters organized on Facebook and Twitter.
In 2011, he apparently hoped that social media would enable peaceful change to a more open society: "Just as the reformers of my generation were driven by historic scenes of the Berlin Wall coming down, these young men and women will never forget those images of triumph in Tahrir Square," he said. "Or, now, the pictures of Libyans coming together in Maydan Al Shuhadaa in Tripoli, renamed by the Libyan people last night. The genie is out of the bottle. Eventually, one way or another, their governments will have to make space for their demands."
That hope quickly soured. The uprisings were put down. Western support was not forthcoming, and the region saw a series of civil wars and the rise of repression and militant Islamism.
What is not so often noted is that social media had a role in this still-ongoing phase, sometimes called the "Arab Winter". With content moderation policies that are either ineffective or blatantly biased towards sensation, they have advantaged misinformation and oppressive movements.
"Although the January 6 riots took almost everyone by surprise, we, in the Arab world, have known for a while that these social media platforms are a threat to democracy," says commentator Haythem Guesmi in the Arabic news outlet Aljazeera. "For far too long, Big Tech companies have been allowed to be the ultimate arbiters of free speech online and a haven for hate speech and disinformation. They have piggybacked on the idea that they helped trigger the Arab Spring and are therefore a force for freedom and democracy."
On the contrary, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out in 2020, in an open letter, platforms are now openly siding with oppressive governments, and censoring dissenting voices. In Syria, Facebook basically switched sides. It now routinely erases accounts that are critical of Bashar Al-Asad, the dictator whose regime was a target of the original Arab Spring.
The January 6 2021 Capitol riots, fomented by Trump, seem like a nightmare parody of the Arab Spring: an uprising powered by lies instead of hope This time round, Clegg makes no attempt to say there is anything good happening here. He wearily justifies what the algorithm has told him to justify.
My now-banned friend's posts operated in the eddies of the stream of social media. They did genuine, intangible good. Meta's purpose has nothing to do with doing good.