In Today's Issue: Facebook Extends Trump Ban for at Least Six Months

The following story appeared in the [post_published] issue of The Daily Juice. The text is from the 9th-10th grade version. To access the other grade levels, interactive vocabulary (words in bold), quiz questions, and more, sign up for The Juice.

Facebook was right to suspend former President Trump after he allegedly used the site to encourage the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, according to the ruling of the Facebook Oversight Board. The group said Facebook’s suspension of Trump was “justified” by the ongoing risk of violence from radical groups that support him.

However, the advisory panel said Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump indefinitely was also “not appropriate.” It urged the company to reevaluate Trump’s status and come up with a final decision in six months. 

Facebook has struggled over how to regulate speech that some perceive as false or hateful. Conservatives have often accused the social network of censoring their ideas.  

To address the problem, Facebook executives created the Oversight Board in 2018. It operates as a type of court. It can override the company’s decisions. Its 20 members are prominent international leaders, journalists, professors, and lawyers.  

The ruling enraged people on the right. The conservative Heritage Foundation said “Big Tech companies should not be allowed to play by a set of rules that give them undue influence over American society.”

Many on the left were upset too. They don’t like that the door remains open to allow Trump to return to Facebook. A group that fights anti-Muslim bigotry said that Trump should not “be allowed to once again spread lies and hatred online.” 

A new Pew Research Center survey found Americans are split on the issue. 49% of Americans think Trump should be permanently banned from social media. 50% said he shouldn’t be. 


What does politics have to do with social media?

When social media firms such as Facebook and its former rival Myspace gained widespread popularity in the 2000s, they were widely regarded as mostly apolitical ways for people to connect online. But the same tools people could use to communicate with friends turned out to be effective for organizing political demonstrations, raising awareness about political causes, and even using advertising to boost particular candidates and policy ideas. Today, social media plays a key role in political campaigns. Political advertising spending hit $8.5 billion last year, much of it allocated to social media.

Can political speech on social media do any good?

For one, it can raise awareness about candidates and issues, which some would argue leads to a more informed society of voters. But social media has also specifically driven some major democratic movements, helping to push societies with few civil rights to freer models with more transparent government. 

Perhaps most notably, social media is widely credited with driving the mass demonstrations in the Arab world in the early 2010s against government corruption and low standards of living. The “Arab Spring” movement, which relied heavily on social media to organize, ousted a number of corrupt regimes

On a smaller scale, social media helps people in local communities connect to fight for the political causes they care about. 

How has social media been used for political harm?

Unfortunately, just as social media makes it easy for political activists to spread the word about their activities, it makes it easy for totalitarian regimes to track and target dissidentsRepressive regimes in such countries as Egypt and Myanmar have shut down access to social media to short-circuit protests and used it to communicate and develop their own plans to thwart rebellions. 

Social media is also a major source of disinformation, which is when bad actors deliberately spread lies and conspiracy theories. It can also help radical hate groups organize.

Why is it hard for social media companies to curb dangerous speech?

Everyone agrees that false and sometimes dangerous or hateful content makes it onto social media. However, there is intense disagreement about what constitutes false or hateful speech, whether social media firms should censor users, and how to punish bad actors. 

The latest controversy between former President Trump and Facebook is an illustrative example. Facebook viewed Trump’s statements about the 2020 election and his encouragement of a demonstration in Washington, DC, that turned into a violent mob attack on the Capitol as dangerous and said that justified removing him from the platform. Others disagree that Trump should be held accountable for the rioters’ actions. Still others think Trump should have been banned for spreading lies a long time ago. Others counter that most politicians lie. This leaves Facebook and other social media firms wondering how to identify hateful, false, or dangerous speech and where to draw the line.

What about free speech?

Free speech is a legal principle and right guaranteed to Americans by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It gives Americans a great degree of freedom not to be punished by the law for what we say or believe. But it does not mean that companies and organizations need to allow anyone to say anything on their internet sites or in their publications. 

When people talk about free speech in relation to social media platforms, they are mostly talking about a commonly held American value: namely, that Americans should be able to voice a wide range of ideas and debate them without being silenced. Some see a violation of this value when powerful tech firms such as Facebook choose to censor Trump and other users, especially political figures. Others say Facebook is a private company and should be proactive in using its right to remove users and speech from its platform that could cause harm. 

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