Four months after his ouster from Facebook and Instagram, the suspension of former president Donald Trump has been upheld by the Facebook Oversight Board.
But the company-funded tribunal of outside experts ruled that it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an “indeterminate and standardless penalty” of indefinite suspension and instructed the company to review the matter within six months, possibly opening the door to Trump’s return.
“Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account,” the board said in its decision.
The board also recommended that Facebook institute clear and proportionate policies “that promote public safety and respect freedom of expression.”
In speaking to reporters following the decision, Oversight Board co-chair and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt denied the board was punting the decision to Facebook. “I don’t think we are just passing the buck back to Facebook here.” The board says Facebook can decide to impose a limited suspension, permanently ban him or appeal again to the board.
“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended,” Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a statement.
The decision likely will still spark outrage among conservatives who say Facebook and other major social media platforms routinely censor their speech.
Trump lost his direct link to supporters when he was booted from the nation’s top social media platforms following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
An immediate return to Facebook would have been a boon for outreach and fundraising should Trump run for president again in 2024. In 2016 and in 2020, Trump tapped Facebook to energize his base and raise campaign cash.
Without his social media bullhorns, he has relied instead on a patchwork of press releases, television interviews, emails and robocalls to get his message out to supporters. On Tuesday, he launched a web page “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” which will eventually allow him to be in direct touch with his supporters. He has also talked of starting his own social media platform.
The Trump ban is the most consequential case yet for Facebook’s Oversight Board, with far-reaching political implications for the nation. The board’s decision could also influence how other social media platforms treat the speech of world leaders in the future.
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After the board’s decision Wednesday, Madihha Ahussain, Muslim Advocates’ special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, said the decision was “not something to celebrate.”
“It is a shameful indictment of Facebook and the Facebook Oversight Board that we just spent several months waiting to see if a man directly responsible for one of the darkest days in modern American history would be allowed to once again spread hate and lies online,”Ahussain said in a statement. “Further, we are extremely concerned that the Board’s decision leaves the door open for Facebook to let Trump back on the platform in six months—an unacceptable and dangerous outcome.”
Why Facebook banned Trump
Two posts by the former president praising the Capitol attack violated the company’s rules, Facebook said at the time.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg accused Trump of trying “to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden” and said the indefinite suspension the day after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol was necessary to reduce the risk of violence at least up until Biden’s inauguration.
The company then referred the final decision on Trump’s suspension to its oversight board. Saying Trump’s suspension had driven “intense global interest,” the Oversight Board accepted the case in January and pledged to conduct “a thorough and independent assessment of the company’s decision.”
Facebook asked the board: Did it correctly decide on Jan. 7 to indefinitely block Trump’s access to Facebook and Instagram? It also asked for recommendations on how to handle suspensions of political leaders.
A decision was expected by April 20, but the board extended the 90-day deadline, citing the high volume of public comments. The board received thousands of comments during the public input period and an appeal from the former president himself.
Should Facebook, Twitter censor Trump, world leaders?
Zuckerberg and others have grown increasingly uneasy with Facebook wielding the power to silence world leaders and reshape the nation’s online conversation. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, a virulent critic of the former president, said he was not comfortable with Big Tech blocking Trump’s access to his accounts after the deadly Capitol attack.
“Yesterday, it was Donald Trump who was banned, and tomorrow, it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view,” Sanders said.
Facebook’s Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs, wrote at the time that the decision was made in “extraordinary circumstances” in which a sitting president was “actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy.”
“This has never happened before – and we hope it will never happen again,” he said. “It was an unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.”
YouTube and other social media companies also indefinitely suspended Trump’s account. Snapchat and Twitter permanently banned Trump.
“We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said of the decision. “Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.”
Trump had more than 88 million followers on Twitter when his account was taken down.
Twitter was Trump’s favorite megaphone to promote his agenda and attack critics, but he also made prolific use of Facebook.
Trump’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram remained suspended pending the Oversight Board’s decision. During his suspension, Facebook even removed content from other users featuring Trump, including an interview with daughter-in-law Lara Trump for her show “The Right View.”
His account on YouTube is still up, but he cannot upload any new videos. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in March that the Trump ban will be lifted “when we determine the risk of violence has decreased.”
Pew Research Center released data Wednesday showing Americans are divided about whether Trump should be permanently banned from social media, with a 49% of U.S. adults saying he should and 50% saying he should not be.
Only 11% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump should not be allowed to return to social media and 81% of Democrats and Democratic leaners saying he should.
Trump tested rules on election fraud, misinformation and COVID
Throughout his presidency, social media companies wrestled with how to moderate one of their most popular and volatile users.
Time and again, Trump tested the boundaries of what he could say, violating prohibitions against election misinformation, glorifying violence and falsehoods about COVID-19.
In 2015, when Trump was a presidential candidate, he posted a video calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. At the time, Facebook decided to leave it up.
Facebook came under fire from the civil rights community and its own employees in 2020 for leaving up a post in which Trump referred to protesters as “thugs” and wrote, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Zuckerberg announced last June that the company would label posts that violated its rules on hate speech and would remove posts that attempted to incite violence or suppress voting, even from politicians.
The decision to label Trump’s social media posts sparked a backlash from conservatives who accused Facebook of censorship. Last week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that would prevent social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube from “deplatforming” politicians like Trump.
Following the Capitol attack, Facebook cut off Trump’s access to its platforms Trump critics praised the move which, though condemned by Trump supporters, had the support of most Americans. But free speech advocates warned it set a dangerous precedent.
In September, some of the company’s harshest critics created a rival panel of independent experts to monitor Facebook they call the “Real Facebook Oversight Board.”
“Facebook failed for months to take action over Donald Trump’s repeated use of its platform to incite violence, spread disinformation and systematic attempts to subvert the election. Its abject failure to act undoubtedly played a role in the violent events that unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” these critics said in a statement at the time. “American democracy survived in spite of Facebook.”
Trump, who lost his reelection bid six months ago, continues to claim election fraud. “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” Trump said in a statement Tuesday.
Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, fired back: “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system,” she tweeted.
How does the Facebook Oversight board work?
Launched last year to review the toughest calls the company makes, the Oversight Board is supposed to function as an independent entity but gets financial backing and technical support from Facebook.
A case has to be referred to the board either by Facebook or by users who disagree with content moderation decisions the company makes. The Oversight Board then taps five of its 20 members to consider if Facebook correctly applied its own rules by taking down or leaving up a piece of content.
The members of the panel are not named publicly, but Politico reported Tuesday that one of the board’s five U.S. members was deeply involved and helped write the initial recommendation. Conservatives former federal judge Michael McConnell and John Samples, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute and two lawyers conversant in debates about online speech, Columbia Law professor Jamal Greene and University of Oklahoma law professor Evelyn Aswad, took part.
The panel tries to reach a unanimous decision, but only a simple majority is required. The ruling is then presented to the entire Oversight Board, which must vote to approve it. If the majority rejects the ruling, the process begins again with another panel.
The Oversight Board, which has the authority to review and overturn the company’s content moderation decisions, showed its willingness to challenge Facebook’s content moderation decisions in the first cases it took on.
In addition to the content moderation rulings, the Oversight Board makes policy suggestions. Facebook is not required to follow those suggestions but has so far appeared open to them.
The board’s decisions cannot be overturned by Zuckerberg or any other Facebook executive. It