If a company's main order of business is to pour a deluge of unvetted information through billions of fire hoses daily, does it help much for clarity and truth to turn off one particular spigot, even a particularly voluble one?
Wouldn't it be better to let all the hoses flow freely, in the hope that the purest ideas will emerge victorious and the worst will drain away?
That's the long-cherished conceit of free speech, and it's one ideas-minded people believe in, though the matter is vastly complicated in the modern world.
On Wednesday, the nation's First Spigot — its most recent former president, Donald Trump — got his day in what essentially is Facebook's quasi Supreme Court. The company's Oversight Board, formed last year, reviews and can overturn decisions by Facebook and Instagram to remove content, suspend users or even shut them out for good.
The board has been choosing its own members after an initial seeding by the company. They include lawyers, human-rights advocates, former politicians and journalists. Since October there have been more than 220,000 appeals from users, but the board has issued fewer than a dozen determinations. Its decisions on specific content are binding, but its policy recommendations are not.
Facebook and other social-media companies had silenced Trump on their platforms in January following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and his persistent efforts to undermine the truth of his election loss. Twitter, where he was most prolific, did so permanently. YouTube said it might let Trump participate again one day when it was "safe." Facebook wasn't quite clear about what the future would hold.
That was the crux of the decision announced Wednesday. The Oversight Board determined, as we on the Star Tribune Editorial Board had argued at the time, that banning Trump in January was justified. He had created, the Oversight Board wrote, "an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible." Nonetheless, it continued, it is "not permissible ... to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored." Facebook now will have six months to clarify.
Earlier we used the word "quasi" to refer to the Oversight Board's authority. In fact, the word could apply to the whole of social media. Facebook and other platforms are private enterprises, but they host quasi public forums. The content they pass along is quasi legitimate — it's factual sometimes. Even the quotidian personal musings on the sites are quasi authentic as people attempt to portray themselves in the best light.
In short, what we have is one mess of a marketplace of ideas. Facebook deserves credit at least for seeking a trustworthy way to moderate it. As journalists who host our own streams of information and response, we know well the challenges of balancing broad-minded generosity with due restraint. But either social-media companies are going to curate content or they're not. Until they demonstrate their policies to be clear and consistent, they'll struggle with credibility.
The First Amendment protects citizens against government attempts to limit speech. It doesn't apply to private companies, which are free to set their own restrictions and are under increasing pressure to do so.
Yet the spirit of free speech should ripple throughout society. If you can silence someone else, then someone, someday, can do the same to you. It isn't a citizen's right to be comfortable on the sea of discourse. It's a citizen's responsibility to navigate the storm.
Meanwhile, although Trump could not have gathered the political force he possesses without his social-media accounts, he doesn't necessarily need direct access going forward. This week he launched his own communications platform, "From the Desk of Donald J. Trump." His followers can repeat what he says there on the social networks of their choosing, or whisper it into whichever ears they want.