Facebook’s ‘Supreme Court’ Tells Zuckerberg He’s the Decider

When Mr. Zuckerberg first pitched the idea of a “Facebook Supreme Court” several years ago, he promoted it as a way to make the company’s governance more democratic, by forming an independent body of subject matter experts and giving them the power to hear appeals from users.

“I think in any kind of good-functioning democratic system, there needs to be a way to appeal,” Mr. Zuckerberg told Ezra Klein in a 2018 Vox podcast.

The oversight board also served another purpose. For years, Mr. Zuckerberg had been called in as Facebook’s policy judge of last resort. (In 2018, for example, he got personally involved in the decision to bar Alex Jones, the Infowars conspiracy theorist.) But high-profile moderation decisions were often unpopular, and the blowback was often fierce. If it worked, the oversight board would take responsibility for making the platform’s most contentious content decisions, while shielding Mr. Zuckerberg and his policy team from criticism.

It’s hard to imagine a dispute Mr. Zuckerberg would be more eager to avoid than the one about Mr. Trump. The former president rode Facebook to the White House in 2016, then tormented the company by repeatedly skirting its rules and daring executives to punish him for it. When they finally did, Republicans raged at Mr. Zuckerberg and his lieutenants, accusing them of politically motivated censorship.

Facebook faced plenty of pressure in the other direction, too — both from Democrats and civil rights groups and from employees, many of whom saw Mr. Trump’s presence on Facebook as fundamentally incompatible with their goal of reducing harmful misinformation and hate speech. No matter what Mr. Zuckerberg and his team decided, they were sure to inflame the online speech wars and make more enemies.

Before the decision on Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives did everything they could to convince a skeptical public that the oversight board would have real teeth. They funded the group through a legally independent trust, filled it with hyper-credentialed experts and pledged to abide by its rulings.

But for all its claims of legitimacy, the oversight board has always had a Potemkin quality to it. Its leaders were selected by Facebook, and its members are (handsomely) paid out of the company’s pockets. Its mandate is limited, and none of its rulings are binding, in any meaningful sense of that word. If Mr. Zuckerberg decided tomorrow to ignore the board’s advice and reinstate Mr. Trump’s accounts, nothing — no act of Congress, no judicial writ, no angry letter from Facebook shareholders — could stop him.