When Mr. Zuckerberg first came up with the idea of a “Facebook Supreme Court” a few years ago, he promoted it to make corporate governance more democratic by creating an independent group of subject matter experts and giving them the power to appeal from users.
“I think there has to be a way to appeal in any well-functioning democratic system,” Zuckerberg told Ezra Klein on a 2018 Vox podcast.
The oversight body also served another purpose. For years, Mr. Zuckerberg had been consulted by Facebook as a political judge of last resort. (For example, he was personally implicated in the 2018 decision to ban Alex Jones, Infowars’ conspiracy theorist.) But high profile moderation decisions were often unpopular and the setback was often severe. If it worked, the oversight board would take responsibility for making the platform’s most controversial substantive decisions while protecting Mr. Zuckerberg and his political team from criticism.
It’s hard to imagine that a fight that Mr Zuckerberg wants to avoid is bigger than the one over Mr Trump. The former president drove into the White House with Facebook in 2016 and tortured the company by repeatedly evading its rules and daring executives to punish him for it. When they finally did, the Republicans raged on Mr. Zuckerberg and his lieutenants, accusing them of politically motivated censorship.
Facebook has also faced heavy pressure the other way – from both Democrats and civil rights groups and employees, many of whom viewed Mr Trump’s presence on Facebook as fundamentally inconsistent with its goal of reducing harmful misinformation and hate speech. No matter what Mr. Zuckerberg and his team decided, they were sure to spark the online language wars and make more enemies.
Ahead of Wednesday’s decision, Mr Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives went out of their way to convince a skeptical public that the supervisory board would have real teeth. They financed the group through a legally independent trust, filled it with highly qualified experts and committed to complying with their decisions.
Despite all claims to legitimacy, the supervisory body always had a Potemkin quality. The executives have been selected by Facebook and the members are paid (handsome) out of the company’s pocket. Its mandate is limited and none of its decisions are literally binding. If Mr Zuckerberg decided tomorrow to ignore the advice of the board of directors and restore Mr Trump’s accounts, nothing could stop him – no act of Congress, no court ruling, no angry letter from Facebook shareholders.