The question of a permanent ban is about whether Facebook’s “supreme court” should institute one, not whether Facebook has the legal right. I’ll stipulate the legal right and limit myself to what I believe would be a ban’s negative effects on society and on Facebook’s business.
The freedom to speak, hear and explore controversial ideas, even disturbing ones, is critical for a free society. The importance of this liberty extends beyond legal freedom of speech — which was the major concern over two centuries ago when only government could meaningfully stifle the exchange of ideas. Now, private organizations such as Facebook are powerful enough to control others’ speech at critical times, such as during a public controversy or an election. Facebook should recognize its outsize role and view itself not just as a supplier of advertising but as also providing a fabric for society where freedom should abound and do its work.
There are several reasons this freedom is important. Among them are America’s need for a vibrant marketplace of ideas, the impossibility of overlords managing speech in society’s best interests, and its role in developing vigorous and anti-fragile minds. Competition between ideas is important because truth is hard to know, and knowledge is always evolving. Centuries ago, King Solomon observed that wise people love to be challenged. Today, scientific research constantly expands what we can know, proving previously accepted truths to be false and demonstrating the limits to humanity’s mental abilities. Competition is necessary to produce the evidence needed to better understand our world.
Oversight boards are also subject to these limitations, which is one reason freedom is a superior means for determining what people should debate and believe. Additionally, when such power is concentrated in the hands of a few, they often use it for their own benefit — and to the detriment of their rivals. This insight is one reason America embraces democratic principles and is wary of concentrated power.
Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) is believed to have said that life never stops teaching. Centuries later, Abigail Adams advised her son, John Quincy Adams, that great character and minds are not developed in calmness, but in contending with great difficulties. Now, research shows that mental challenges cause physical improvements in our brains’ abilities to think, and that emotional challenges enable us to become anti-fragile. Free speech presents both types of challenges, making it crucial for individual and societal resilience.
Besides diminishing free speech, a permanent ban would further Facebook’s political entanglements. Facebook started becoming an important political tool years ago when it reached out to politicians and taught them to use Facebook for seeking and organizing voters. One of its first customers was then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. The entanglement grew when Facebook used its influence to favor President Obama in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney, according to Obama campaign official Carol Davidson.
In the 2020 campaign season, Facebook fully embraced its political role when it actively labeled some posts as misinformation, hired fact checkers, and sought to edit the post-election public dialogue concerning the election’s legitimacy.
Facebook’s growing influence as a player, not just a platform, is evidenced by the intensity with which politicians pressure the company to treat their side as truth and goodness — and their opponents’ side as false, corrupt and dangerous. Demonstrating willingness to permanently deplatform a prominent politician will make control of Facebook an even more attractive political prize.
Proponents of the ban would likely counter that the nature of Donald Trump’s speech and his ability to monopolize attention make him a destructive outlier. But his comments, as best I can tell, are not unusual today. His political opponents and media critics have called for physical intimidation of Trump supporters, expressed hatred for them, likened them to history’s worst murderers and oppressors, and mocked them as lacking intelligence and morals. So it is hard objectively to see him as an outlier in his substance. If he is banned while these others not, the ban would seem little more than a political act.
Supporters of a ban are right that Trump has an unusual ability to influence. But a person’s persuasive skills aren’t a reason for bans from a politically valuable platform. If it were, then Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be next, as her abilities in that area are a close match for Trump’s skill.
Facebook should demonstrate its commitment to communities that thrive in adversity, not communities that shrink from it.
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