The Facebook Oversight Board has upheld former President Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook and Instagram - but not before advising the platform to look at its own role in the Capitol-storming mess.
The social media giant was the first major platform to ban Trump following the January 6 insurrection, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the US capitol with the aim to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election results.
In its ruling, the Oversight Board, which has been described as “the Supreme Court for Facebook,” affirmed the decision to ban Trump, although it criticised the social platform for failing to adhere to its existing content moderation policies.
Trump, it said, created “an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.” The board further cited two posts published on Facebook and Instagram which violated the company’s policies against praising those engaged in violence.
Donald Trump has been accused of creating the conditions for the Capitol siege by repeatedly and falsely claiming the election had been rigged.
The former president was further condemned for failing to disavow those storming the “People’s House,” describing them as “very special people” and “patriots” in a video where he tepidly asked them to return home, but reiterated his baseless allegations of electoral fraud and said “we love you.”
Five people died during the storming of the Capitol, including four rioters and one police officer, Brian Sicknick. A further 138 officers were injured, with fifteen requiring hospitalisation.
In response, Facebook issued a temporary 24 hour ban, which was later extended indefinitely. At the time, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risks of allowing Trump to use the service during the remaining time in his presidency was “too great.”
Other platforms followed, with Twitter permanently banning Trump two days later. The former President was also barred from YouTube, Reddit, Twitch, and Snapchat.
“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,” it said.
However, the Oversight Board criticised the extraordinary nature of the ban, which was not rooted in precedent, but rather a reaction to the events happening in Washington D.C.
“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account,” it said.
It has ordered Facebook to revisit the decision within the next six months and re-issue a penalty that’s based on ”the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm,” as well as precedent.
The Oversight Board additionally recommended Facebook create a rigorous set of procedures and a dedicated team to handle the moderation of political speech. This team, it said, should be “insulated from political and economic interference, as well as undue influence.”
Something about beams and motes, hmmm?
Facebook was also encouraged to revisit its role in creating the conditions for the Capitol insurrection. This review, it said, should be an “open reflection” on the design and policy choices that allowed a narrative for electoral fraud to flourish, and ultimately exacerbated tensions.
While Facebook describes itself as "constitutionally" obligated to revisit the decision to ban Trump, it has no obligation to consider or act on the board’s other recommendations.
Established in 2018, the Facebook Oversight Board operates independently from the company, although its $130m in funding comes from Facebook and is held in a separate irrevocable trust. Members include former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, journalist and editor Alan Rusbridger, and constitutional scholar Michael William McConnell.
In a tweet, Nick Clegg, Facebook's veep of Global Affairs and former UK deputy prime minister, said the company would develop a response that is “clear and proportionate,” but added Trump’s accounts would remain suspended until it revisits the decision to ban them.
“As we stated in January, we believe our decision was necessary and right, and we’re pleased the board has recognized that the unprecedented circumstances justified the exceptional measure we took,” Clegg said in a separate statement published to Facebook’s newsroom page.
Welcoming the decision, Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal said this judgement set “a minimal marker for truth [and] decency.”
“I support the [Facebook] Oversight Board’s nuanced decision to uphold the suspension which is consistent with the principles I have articulated to balance ethical community standards with user speech,” added Representative Ro Khanna.
The development has proven less welcome with Trump’s supporters, who caused #DeleteFacebook to begin trending in the moments following the announcement. Further opposition has come from Republican members of the House and Senate.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader and representative for California's 23rd congressional district, criticised the decision, accusing Facebook of acting more “like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate.”
Ted Cruz, who opposed Trump during the 2016 election, but later became one of his most ardent supporters in the Senate, described the decision as “disgraceful.”
“For every liberal celebrating Trump’s social media ban, if the Big Tech oligarchs can muzzle the former president, what’s to stop them from silencing you?” he added. ®