With Donald Trump banned from Twitter and suspended from Facebook, the political temperature on social media is noticeably cooler. The (relative) tranquility may not last long, with Facebook considering whether to reinstall the former president at some point in the future. On the latest Pivot podcast, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway discuss the implications of this decision, and the wisdom of outsourcing it to an outside entity.
Kara Swisher: Facebook’s oversight board is taking on its first major case. It’s been doing a bunch of them, but this is the big one. Last week Facebook asked the recently formed board to review the company’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account. Twenty people will now decide whether to let Trump back on Facebook and Instagram, after a suspension period. The board is also being asked to consider a question that goes far beyond Trump’s account, and look at their world-leader policy in general.
As a reminder, Facebook announced they’d be launching this “Supreme Court” in 2019. It is a star-studded panel of people that I’ve called the United Nations — only less effective. It should be bigger than 20, but they haven’t named everyone to it yet. It’s funded by Facebook, but Facebook has no control over it. It’s an independent body, and they’re going to take the big case because Mark can’t make the decision himself, or take responsibility for it. So they’re foisting it on them. Ben Smith did a great column on this. And Nick Clegg is doing his fantastic song and dance about how they need new solutions to these problems, which I call “running your own company,” but whatever. What do you think about this, Scott?
Scott Galloway: Well, I find this nothing but delay and obfuscation. And I mean, the notion that Facebook doesn’t have power over it … Facebook could disband it tomorrow.
Swisher: No, they can’t.
Galloway: Okay. Well, what teeth do they have in a dual-class shareholder —
Swisher: They have to adhere to the decision. You’re incorrect about that.
Galloway: Well, okay. How do you force a company with two classes of shares to adhere to any decision?
Swisher: They have agreed to do that in their bylaws. Facebook has agreed that once the board makes a decision, they have to adhere to it. Meaning they don’t have to make the decision themselves, but they have to stick to whatever decision is made by this board.
Galloway: And then if Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t like the decision, can’t he create another board for resolution and appeals and just delay this into oblivion?
Swisher: No, come on. He’s not going to do that. It’s funded, and it’s already been funded for like, I don’t know, ten years or something like that. It’s an independent board made up of Davos-going people.
Galloway: So you this entity has actual teeth?
Swisher: I think it’s like the U.N., but less effective. It’s going to take 90 days to answer this question, by the way. Ninety days. Three months.
Galloway: Ninety days on whether to bring Trump back on the platform?
Swisher: Yeah. They’re going to have five people go through it and make a determination based on whatever. They have five random people. One’s going to be someone from the U.S. In this case, because it’s a big U.S. election issue, and the others from across the globe, and then the 20, I think, people they have now — they should have more — are going to all debate it and then make a determination.
Galloway: So let’s give Facebook benefit of the doubt and say they want to appeal to the wisdom of crowds. They want people who have global concerns at heart — stakeholders, not just shareholders. And that this is going to have some teeth. But whenever you create a board of eventually 40 people — I mean, the New York Times has an editorial board. They have a group of people. Goldman Sachs has an investment committee that has to give the thumbs up or thumbs down on taking a company like Robin Hood public, despite the CEO claiming he’s worried about systemic risk in the market. They all have decision-making authorities and boards that are supposed to help them get through tough issues. But when you create something like this, aren’t you basically just slow-rolling everything? Because a 40-person board is going to take 90 days to get back to you on the most difficult decisions.
Swisher: In concept, they were trying to think of any way to make these decisions that didn’t suck Facebook management into a constant, persistent amount of fighting over it., and then leaving it to essentially one person. And that’s what the issue is here.
Galloway: Do you like this? What would you have done?
Swisher: I don’t know. At first, I’m like, it’s a laudable idea, because there are no good decisions here. And then part of me is like, “This isn’t going to work. It’s too unwieldy.” And so I don’t know. I feel like there should be more companies, so we don’t have to have this situation where Facebook determines everything. I don’t want to wait for Mark Zuckerberg to make the right decision, and then have people attack him for making the wrong decision. So, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. And I don’t know if there’s anything to do but just closing Facebook down. It’s really hard.
One of the things that Nick Clegg, one of the co-chairs of the board said, is that “practically the only entities I trust less than companies would be the government.” So can this quasi-government that’s sort of independent do a good job? This is a quote from Nick Clegg in Ben Smith’s column: “Everybody’s making the reasonable point when they say I’m uneasy about this display of private corporate power over the public realm. It strikes the rawest of raw nerves.” But he said, “The company can’t wait for democracy to catch up and institute laws and norms around Facebook’s behaviors. Those norms don’t exist. In the meantime, we can’t duck making decisions in real time.”
I think they should be making decisions in real time, the executives themselves, and live with the consequences of what they created. And here they’re shooting it off to an oversight board.
Galloway: They’re slow-rolling and abdicating the same responsibility and difficult calls that every media company has to make themselves, and every private company has to make themselves. And if it’s impossible for them to do this in a tough way that doesn’t damage the commonwealth, isn’t that evidence that they should be regulated?
Swisher: Yeah. That’s what I feel. Is there something between commercial incentives and the government? If they’re utilities, govern them like utilities, although then there’s the First Amendment in the United States, which doesn’t exist in other countries. If it had real power, this board could actually determine super-controversial issues. But it’s like the Supreme Court. On Monday, the Supreme Court had a decision on this emoluments clause where Trump can’t be prosecuted as president, but by the time it got to the Supreme Court, they’re now making it moot. So the president can do crimes and take money in office now, apparently. They said it’s moot now since he’s not president. So why are we even trying? Could you try a CEO after they were fired or left? The whole thing just doesn’t make any sense. It’s just the barn door, horse, all that kind of stuff. That’s what I feel.
Galloway: I think where we part company a little bit is I’ve always thought that the claims about the complexity and the near impossibility of moderating these platforms have always been overstated, as evidenced by the fact that when they took Trump’s account down, the levels of disinformation literally plummeted. They find that it’s actually a small number of accounts here that are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the misinformation. So I think all of this is nothing, but quite frankly, a big rope-a-dope.
Swisher: I do too.
Galloway: Look, if you can’t figure this shit out on your own, and by the way, the notion that it’s this difficult — what we’re finding out is when you suspend the president’s account 1,449 days into his 1,460 day tenure, that misinformation declines by 72 percent in less than four days. Doesn’t that say something? Basically something like 70 percent of the links to websites that traffic in this misinformation are coming from a small number of accounts on Twitter and Facebook platforms.
Swisher: I just had a discussion with Kevin Roose — I’m doing these bonus episodes after certain things. He’s like, “Trump might just be a one-off.” There’s a couple of one-offs every now and then, an Alex Jones, a Trump, whoever.
Galloway: Just get rid of them. Yeah, just take a stand like every other media company. You go, “Okay, this is clearly bad for the commonwealth.” These people are paid a lot of money. They have to make calls on occasion that are shitty calls, and that’s okay.
Swisher: They don’t want to be the ref here.
Galloway: For God’s sake, they’re the ultimate ref. They program their algorithms to amplify the most dangerous content in the world.
Swisher: Hasn’t this been the same for the media all through its history?
Galloway: The New York Times deals with this every fucking day.
Swisher: They do.
Galloway: And they figure it out.
Swisher: So do broadcast networks. Some people think they should bring back the fairness doctrine, which is weird. It couldn’t be done on this platform. But it does present an interesting challenge. And Mark is just shoving it right off his desk.
Galloway: The term you use is the exact right one. It’s a slow roll. “We are going to continue to program our algorithms, such that they amplify some of the most damaging, novel, controversial content in the world, which is damaging to the commonwealth. But on big, high-profile issues, we’ll pretend that we’re being thoughtful and slow roll, because we’re going to create an oversight board of 40 people.” When I’m on a board of directors, we purposefully have an odd number of directors. You know why?
Galloway: So we can make a fucking decision!
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.