A semi-autonomous oversight board for Facebook has upheld a suspension of former US President Donald Trump, but orders a review to be conducted by the social media giant within six months.
“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the 20-person panel said in its decision.
However, the board determined it was “not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension”, with Michael McConnell, co-chair of the panel, telling reporters “indefinite penalties of this sort, do not pass the international or American smell test for clarity, consistency, and transparency”.
The panel called on the company within six months to “review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform”.
Nick Clegg, Facebook vice president of global affairs and communication, said in a blog entry that Facebook “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,” he wrote.
Without access to Facebook or Twitter, which unlike Facebook permanently banned him, Trump in a press release called the bans “a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country.”
“Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth,” Trump continued, adding, “These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”
Trump’s former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was also quick to slam the decision.
“This is a sad day for America,” Meadows told Fox News. “They shouldn’t have a monopoly, and yet Google and Facebook and YouTube actually control much of what America sees … it is time that we break up big tech, not just regulate it.”
President Joe Biden has not commented on the announcement and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said they “would not have any comments on the future of the former president’s social media.”
Psaki did say that Biden’s “view is that the major platforms have a responsibility, related to health and safety of all Americans to stop amplifying untrustworthy content disinformation and misinformation, especially related to COVID-19 vaccinations and elections”. Psaki pointed out that she was not singling out any specific individual or group with her remarks.
For now, Trump will remain unable to put postings on Facebook.
“This removes a pretty big platform for him at least in the short term,” Al Jazeera correspondent Patty Culhane, in Washington, DC, said. “This is a man who still wants to be relevant. He still has a firm grip on the Republican Party. Having access to those social media followers really does help him with fundraising for himself and his sizeable legal problems, but it could influence how people vote in the Republican primaries”.
A new section was added to Trump’s personal website on Tuesday allowing him to share personal social posts.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, suspended Trump a day after rioters stormed the US Capitol as legislators met to certify the victory of President Joe Biden. The incident followed a weeks-long disinformation campaign by Trump and his allies claiming that the election had been “stolen”.
“The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on January 7.
Other leading social media platforms also booted Trump in the wake of the riot, with Twitter, where Trump has 88 million followers, saying its ban would be permanent.
‘Serious risk of violence was possible’
The board found that two Trump posts on January 6 “severely violated” Facebook’s standards.
In the first, Trump told rioters: “We love you. You’re very special.” In the second, he called those storming the Capitol “great patriots”, telling them to “remember this day forever”.
“The Board found that, in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible,” the panel said in justification of its decision.
“At the time of Mr Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions. As president, Mr Trump had a high level of influence. The reach of his posts was large, with 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram,” it added.
The panel also called on Facebook to “address widespread confusion about how decisions relating to influential users are made”, adding that “considerations of newsworthiness should not take priority when urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm”.
If Facebook opts for a suspension for a set period of time for influential users, the company should assess the risk of the user inciting significant harm before the suspension ends. If the risk remains, Facebook should impose another suspension.
— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) May 5, 2021
The oversight board was launched in October of 2020 amid an ongoing debate over the company’s ability to manage hate speech and misinformation on the platform. Civil liberties advocates have also accused Facebook of limiting free speech.
The board’s 20 members, who will eventually grow to 40, include a former prime minister of Denmark and the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, along with legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists.
The first four board members were directly chosen by Facebook. Those four then worked with Facebook to select additional members, leaving some to question the board’s independence.
In its statement on Wednesday, the board added that if Facebook chooses to allow Trump back onto the site following the review, the company “must address any further violations promptly and in accordance with its established content policies”.
The panel did not reveal how it voted, but said a minority of members emphasised the company should require users who seek reinstatement after being suspended to “recognise their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future”.