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News Brief: Decision Day On Facebook's Trump Ban, Aid For India, Democracy Poll

NOEL KING, HOST:

Will Donald Trump ever be allowed back on Facebook?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The former president hasn't been able to post since early January when the social network said he used his account to, quote, "incite violent insurrection" at the U.S. Capitol. Facebook's new oversight board has been reviewing that decision. And today, we will learn the verdict. We should note, Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

KING: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is following this story. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: What is at stake here for Donald Trump and for Facebook?

BOND: Well, you know, these Facebook and Instagram accounts, they're a big megaphone for Trump. He has tens of millions of followers there. And remember, this was a very divisive decision that Facebook made. You know, Trump supporters, Republicans, have pointed to it as an example of how tech companies are politically biased. Critics, like, including many civil rights groups, say this ban was long overdue because, you know, they say Trump repeatedly broke Facebook's rules. Now, Facebook has in the past taken a few posts of Trump's down but has largely been very hands off. When it comes to political speech, the company gives a lot of leeway. That changed after the events of the Capitol. Facebook suspended Trump indefinitely. It said it was just too risky to let him keep posting. And the company says this was the right decision in extraordinary circumstances. But it also acknowledges what critics are saying, that this is a lot of power - right? - in the hands of a private company. And that's why it's turned this decision over to this new oversight board.

KING: And what is the oversight board exactly? Who's on it? What do they do?

BOND: Right. So this is a board - Facebook launched it. It named its initial members almost a year ago. And the idea is the board acts as the final arbiter of the hardest calls that Facebook makes about what content users can post. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg first talked about this idea, he talked about it as almost a Supreme Court for Facebook. And Facebook has agreed to follow the board's decisions. It's funded by Facebook through an independent trust. But, you know, yes, ultimately, it's the creation of this company. And a lot of critics say it's not really that independent. So this ruling is going to be a big test of whether the board is seen as independent or whether it's seen as a cover to let Facebook duck responsibility for these very hard decisions.

KING: I am interested in this comparison to the Supreme Court. So who is on it?

BOND: Right. So it's currently made up of 20 international experts from around the world. These are specialists in law and human rights. There's a Nobel Peace laureate from Yemen, the former prime minister of Denmark. And the way it's going to work is five members of the board judge each case. Their names are not made public. And then their ruling has to be approved by a majority of the full board. And what they're considering is Facebook's own rules but also international human rights principles. They consult outside experts, and they solicit comments from the public. They got more than 9,000 public comments in Trump's case. And they've also gotten a statement from Trump.

KING: Nine thousand public comments. Do you have any sense of how the board is leaning?

BOND: Well, that is the real question here, right? We've only had a few handful of decisions from this board, which has really only been actually up and running since October. And all of those were cases where Facebook took down a post for breaking its rules. And in the majority of those rulings, the board overturned Facebook. It reinstated the content. And that's an indication, I think, that these board members, you know, weigh freedom of expression very strongly. But at the same time, you know, it's a small number to go on. And this Trump case is just so unprecedented. This is a world leader - right? - being banned from a massive social platform with billions of users. You know, this could set a precedent for how Facebook treats posts by other global political leaders and also even be a model for other companies that are struggling to figure out how to balance speech rights against potential harms. So ultimately, I think it's really hard to know how they're going to rule here until we actually see the ruling and the justification for it.

KING: And we will later today. NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The World Health Organization says nearly half of daily COVID infections worldwide are in India.

MARTIN: And that's just the official count. The numbers of cases and fatalities is suspected to be even higher. Indian Americans are raising money to help with the country's COVID crisis. Dr. Nalini Saligram is a member of a coalition of philanthropic groups. She says the outbreak demands immediate global attention.

NALINI SALIGRAM: I hope this crisis will be solved. I hope vaccination rates will increase and India will conquer this and - because it is a very big must for the whole world that India solves this problem.

KING: NPR's Quil Lawrence has been out in Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York City talking to people in a place that is known as Little India. Good morning, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What did people tell you?

LAWRENCE: Well, so many of them have friends or family who are battling or have died of COVID. I spoke with one woman, Darshi Kirtiben, who worked at a fabric store called India Sari Palace, and she just ticked off the names of family members who have been sick, and her 67-year-old sister didn't survive.

DARSHI KIRTIBEN: My sister, she passed away. She passed away - in two days, like one week.

LAWRENCE: She died just last week. And unfortunately, stories like this are common here and among Indian Americans all over the country and also is common this sort of sense of helplessness because they're so far away, and relatives and friends just keep calling them.

KING: These folks are 7,000 miles away from their friends and their family. And on top of that, more and more countries are banning travel to and from India because of COVID. So how are they looking to help?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, in Jackson Heights, I spoke with Shiv Dass, who's the president of the Jackson Heights Merchants' Association. He says they've raised $20,000 to buy oxygen in India. He's hoping they'll double that amount and send the money to the Indian prime minister's relief fund. Efforts like this are happening nationwide on a much larger scale. Nishant Pandey leads another organization that's part of the India Philanthropy Alliance, which includes more than a dozen charities.

NISHANT PANDEY: So far, we have commitments of $20 million. In the last three or four days, we have placed orders for 7,500 oxygen concentrators, both from the U.S. and from China. Of course, the need is much greater.

KING: Yeah, the need would be much greater because this is an enormously populous country. I do wonder, though, with international aid coming in and with attention having been drawn to what's going on, are the people that you talked to hopeful?

LAWRENCE: I mean, some people were saying, well, we think it'll peak. It'll just be a couple of weeks. But I think people who looked at it more deeply are really worried. First of all, there's the idea that variants could come out of there. And also Nishant Pandey, he was in India over the winter, and he actually got infected and ended up in the hospital. And he said from what he could tell where he was hospitalized, where his mother was hospitalized, the hospitals in January or so seemed to be winding down their capacity, not preparing for a possible second or third wave. So these people think that maybe the government in India didn't really prepare properly. Now it's spiking.

KING: OK, NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: One of Joe Biden's first actions as president was to rejoin a bunch of international agreements that former President Trump had backed out of.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, we have to show not just that we're back but that we're back to stay and that we aren't going to go alone.

MARTIN: He hoped to restore America's place as a leader in the world. So is it working? According to a new poll by the world's largest study of international democracies, people want more democracy, but some see the United States as one of the biggest obstacles to that, including some of our closest allies.

KING: NPR's Rob Schmitz is with us from Berlin, where he's been poll watching. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Tell me about this poll. Who conducts it? What is it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the survey is called the Democracy Perception Index, and it's been conducted each year since 2018 by the Berlin-based research firm Latana and the Alliance of Democracies, which is a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of democracy. This is the largest survey of democracy in the world. The goal here is to try and dig into what people see as the biggest threats to democracy globally.

KING: The biggest threats. And what did respondents say?

SCHMITZ: Well, they listed a lot of things that you would think - economic inequality, limits on free speech, unfair elections, social media. But 44% of them said another threat to democracy worldwide is the influence of the United States. That ranked higher than the influence of China or Russia. I spoke to Fred DeVeaux about this finding. He's a senior researcher at Latana and he said, by and large, there was one region responsible for this perception of the U.S. as a threat to democracy.

FRED DEVEAUX: In most of the world, most people think the United States has a more positive impact than negative impact. But in European countries and many of the United States allies, the balance is actually the other way, where more people say that the United States has a negative impact on democracy than positive.

KING: This is really fascinating. He's saying that people who live in countries that have the closest ties to the U.S., our allies, are the same people who see the U.S. as a threat to democracy. How did that happen?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, I can say it from my perch in Berlin, it's clear that former President Trump was extremely unpopular in much of Europe, and many people here saw him as a threat to democracy and think the movement he channeled is still a threat. More than half the respondents here in Germany said the U.S. has a net negative impact on global democracy, while less than a third believed it was a positive impact. China was also seen as a threat, particularly by people who live in Asia. People in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam and others see China as the biggest threat. So it seems like the smaller countries closest to the great powers like China and the U.S. were most critical of them.

KING: This is a remarkable sign of the times. So they do this poll every year. How did things change over the past year?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, surprisingly, given what we just discussed, the view of the U.S. has actually gotten better.

KING: OK.

SCHMITZ: Since last year, the perception of U.S. influence on democracy has actually increased significantly - 14% more people worldwide say the U.S. has a positive influence on democracy. This increase was particularly high here in Germany, as well as among Chinese respondents. The survey takers see this as what they call a Biden effect, a sign that globally President Biden is seen as a bigger champion of democracy than former President Trump. And although we've focused on perceptions of the U.S. here, Noel, another interesting finding here is that an overwhelming majority of people worldwide, 81%, say it's important to have democracy in their countries, but only a little more than half say their country is democratic. And that's a clear sign that democracy remains a big priority throughout the world.

KING: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Thanks for your reporting, Rob. We appreciate it.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.