An oversight board upheld a Facebook decision to restrict Trump’s accounts following the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol. But the board said that it was “not appropriate” for the company to impose an “indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”
The board wants the company to review the matter within six months “to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.”
The verdict from the private Facebook “supreme court,” as the oversight board has been dubbed, has tremendous implications for how the company and other social media platforms handle incendiary posts of world leaders in the future. The social media giants have drawn criticism from the left for not doing enough to curb the spread of disinformation from high profile figures, and attacks from the right that arbitrary decisions are being made that censor their voices.
Trump, who has been banned from other social media platforms, issued a statement blasting the ruling.
“What Facebook, Twitter and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country,” he said. “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before. The People of our Country will not stand for it! These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”
The oversight board, with a team of 20 outside experts, was set up by Facebook to handle appeals of company decisions. The board’s decisions are binding, but not its recommendations. In addition to its ruling on Trump’s account, the also recommended that Facebook adopt “clear, necessary, and proportionate policies that promote public safety and respect freedom of expression.”
Their decision is here.
Cable news networks briefly covered the highly anticipated decision, with some initial confusion over exactly what the decision said. The Fox News chyron read “Facebook Oversight Board Bans Trump For Life,” but anchors Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino, who interviewed Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows, did note the nuances of the decision and that the suspension would be reevaluated within six months.
Facebook suspended Trump’s accounts following the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol, with the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, saying that the then-president had used the platform to “incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”. Other social media platforms followed in restricting Trump’s accounts, including Twitter, which announced a permanent ban.
A few weeks later, on Jan. 21, Facebook referred its decision to the oversight board.
“We have taken the view that in open democracies people have a right to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can be held to account,” Facebook’s Nick Clegg wrote at the time. “But it has never meant that politicians can say whatever they like. They remain subject to our policies banning the use of our platform to incite violence. It is these policies that were enforced when we took the decision to suspend President Trump’s access.”
In its decision, the oversight board said that Trump’s Jan. 6 posts “severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines.” Specifically, they cited Trump’s message to those engaged in the siege, in which he wrote, “We love you. You’re very special,” and another in which he referred to them as “great patriots” and told them to “remember this day forever.” Facebook’s rules prohibit praise or support of people engaged in violence.
“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the oversight board said.
“However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension.”
The board that Facebook did not follow a “clear, published procedure” for imposing such a sanction, which is not spelled out in the company’s policies.
“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the oversight board wrote. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”
The oversight board was set up by the company to act as a neutral third party on content moderation decisions. It includes experts on technology, legal affairs, free speech, journalism and digital rights, many from academia and foundation. A five-member panel is selected to review cases and render a decision, but a majority of the entire board has to sign off for a decision to be published.
Frozen out of social media giants, Trump’s office on Tuesday unveiled what was described as a new platform for him to communicate with his followers. But the site was merely a webpage set up so users could easily tweet out or post statements to their own accounts, a function common across the internet.
Trump has continued to claim, without evidence, that the election was rigged. Before his statement on the Facebook decision, his office put out another statement on Wednesday in which the former president blasted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who has pushed back on his claims that there was massive electoral fraud in the 2020 election.
The oversight board also offered a series of recommendations for how the platform handles incendiary content from political figures and what it described as other “influential users.” The board said that the rules should be publicly explained, and that “when Facebook imposes a time-limited suspension on the account of an influential user to reduce the risk of significant harm, it will assess whether the risk has receded before the suspension ends.” Another time-bound suspension should be imposed if the user continues to pose a risk of inciting “imminent violence, discrimination or other lawless action at that time,” the oversight board wrote.
“Suspension periods should be long enough to deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion,” the oversight board wrote.
The board also made a number of recommendations for how Facebook could improve its content review procedures. They also said that the company should do a comprehensive review of “Facebook’s potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence in the United States on January 6.”
“This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused,” the board said.
In a blog post, Facebook’s Clegg said, “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.”
“The board also made a number of recommendations on how we should improve our policies,” Clegg added. “While these recommendations are not binding, we actively sought the board’s views on our policies around political figures and will carefully review its recommendations.”
Some Republicans sharply criticized the oversight board’s decision.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) wrote on Twitter, “This is a dangerous and reckless decision and sends a clear signal to conservatives using social media—you’re not welcome here. If Facebook is so big it thinks it can silence the leaders you elect, it’s time for conservatives to pursue an antitrust agenda.”
Others noted that the platform continues to be a destination for voices from the right.
For all the talk of Facebook “silencing conservative voices,” here’s what their 10 most-seen posts typically look like on any given day. https://t.co/n59K0VM7BF
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) May 5, 2021
Others believe that Facebook has been too lax when it comes to monitoring its content, allowing misinformation, hate speech and incendiary content to proliferate. A group called the Real Facebook Oversight Board, made up of figures such as the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt and Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson, said that the decision over Trump’s account was essentially punted back to the company.
The group said in a statement, “As such we ask: what is the point of the Oversight Board? This is a Facebook-funded, Facebook-appointed body that has no legitimacy to make real decisions. Facebook’s attempt to divert attention from its fundamental failure to take responsibility for what’s on its own platform has itself failed.”
Big tech already has been the focus of a congressional investigation and multiple hearings that have led to calls from lawmakers of both parties for greater regulation or antitrust action, albeit not always for the same reasons. A question in the wake of the Facebook decision is whether it will lead to actual congressional action.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the Senate antitrust subcommittee, has proposed legislation to bolster competition laws and a bill to let news publications to jointly negotiate content deals with big tech companies. She said that “what has not happened is a ‘put your money where your mouth is moment because it is easy to just talk about this all the time. It’s hard when you have the bills start coming up.”
Klobuchar was appearing at a D.C. Zoom party for her book Antitrust. “I think the truth will be told on how serious [Republicans] are in taking on monopolies if they are willing to look for common ground on these bills, and I think there are signals that some of them will,” she said.
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