Trump was blocked from using Facebook following the deadly riots in the US Capitol in January; Trump was roundly blamed for inciting and welcoming the violence, sharing videos on his social media accounts describing the rioters as “patriots” and saying “we love you”. The incident, which occurred in the last days of Trump’s presidency, was the final straw for social media companies which collectively blocked Trump after years of alleged leniency.
At the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented that the ban was finally implemented because Trump had used the platform to “incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government”.
The board has now ruled that two of Trump’s Facebook posts severely violated its community standards, upholding the moderation decision.
“President Trump’s actions on social media encouraged and legitimised violence and were a severe violation of Facebook’s rules,” said Thomas Hughes, Director of the Oversight Board Administration. “By 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. Facebook’s decision to suspend the President on January 7 was the right one.”
However, it stated that the apparent permanence of the ban was inappropriate and informed Facebook that it should make a decision about the conditions under which his account may be restored.
Hughes continued: “The Board rejects Facebook’s request for it to endorse indefinite suspension, which gives the company total discretion over when to lift or impose and isn’t supported by their content policies. Anyone concerned about the power of Facebook should be concerned with the company making decisions outside of its own rules.”
Co-chair of the Oversight Board and former federal judge Michael McConnell added: “Facebook left the indefinite suspension in place and referred the entire matter to the Oversight Board, apparently hoping the board would do what it had not done […] indefinite penalties of this sort do not pass the international or American smell test for clarity, consistency and transparency.”
It informed Facebook that it has six months to re-examine the “arbitrary penalty” and impose one consistent with its own rules and based on both the gravity of the violation and prospect of future harm.
It has also laid out a series of moderation recommendations for Facebook including how to handle community standards violations by “influential users”, calling for clarity over moderation during crises and regarding its “strikes and penalties” process, and telling Facebook to publish a full report on its potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and political tensions which led to violence in the US Capitol.
Sir Nick Clegg, Facebook’s top lobbyist, welcomed the ruling: “While the board has not required Facebook to immediately restore Mr Trump’s accounts, it has not specified the appropriate duration of the penalty. 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.”
Trump’s supporters responded with disgruntlement to the decision. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “Facebook is more interested in acting like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate. If they can ban President Trump, all conservative voices could be next. A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech.”
The Oversight Board was established last year to make final decisions on the thorniest questions about what types of content should be permitted to remain on Facebook’s platforms. It acts like a “supreme court” for social media, with the power to overrule Facebook’s own content moderation decisions. Users can submit appeals to the panel if they believe they have been inappropriately censored. It is made up of a range of experts with a diversity of views and expertise. Its members include former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, and Internet Sans Frontières director Julie Owono.
Meanwhile, the former President and current record holder for presidential impeachments launched a new website, having lost access to all mainstream social media platforms. The “From the Desk of Donald J Trump” page, which has the appearance of a dated blog, allows visitors to repost his messages to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, although user comments on Trump’s own posts are not allowed. A senior advisor has said that Trump has plans to launch his own social media platform; it is uncertain if this platform is forthcoming or if this website is intended as that platform.