Facebook’s oversight board upholds Trump suspension—but sees permanent ban as too harsh

May 5, 2021, 1:39 PM UTC

Facebook’s oversight board has upheld the decision to suspend former President Donald Trump from its service—for now.

The board, which serves as a sort of Supreme Court for tough Facebook content-moderation decisions, said that Trump’s posts on Jan. 6 “encouraged and legitimized violence” and that the suspension was necessary to protect the public’s safety.

However, the board does not support Trump’s “indefinite suspension” from the widely popular social media platform, home to 2.8 billion users. The board is calling for a review of the penalty within six months, and it’s asking Facebook to choose a sentence that’s more consistent with its current rules.

“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,” Thomas Hughes, director of the oversight board administration, said in statement. “Facebook’s decision to suspend the President on January 7 was the right one.”

Effective immediately

The decision on Trump’s suspension is binding and is expected to be implemented immediately, according to Facebook and the board. However, the board’s policy recommendations are optional, and Facebook has 30 days to publicly respond.

The board’s policy recommendations include suggesting that for heads of state or high government officials, Facebook either delete or suspend their accounts if they repeatedly post messages that pose a risk of harm. It also recommends that Facebook publish a report on its potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and political tensions that led to riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The board says Facebook should also publish a new policy which would govern its response to future crisis situations and explain its disciplinary process.

The issue over whether Trump should be banned from its service goes back to Jan. 6 when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. One day later, Facebook indefinitely suspended Trump, saying the risk of his engaging in further incitement was too great to allow him to remain on the service.

But two weeks later, the company handed the final decision over permanently suspending Trump to the oversight board.

A decision felt round the world

The decision has big implications for world leaders and political figures, who now know they will not be able to say nearly anything they want without consequence. It also will likely fuel further debate about whether social media should be regulated more closely. Both Republicans and Democrats, though for different reasons, have slammed Facebook for how it polices its service.

Facebook previously allowed politicians to have almost free rein over what they said on the service, citing the newsworthiness of what they say. But after backlash from big advertisers and employees over how it handled hate speech on its service, the company added new warning labels for misinformation and hate speech, which also apply to political figures, and even now removes posts that incite violence or try to suppress voting. 

Facebook’s oversight board was initially expected to make a decision about Trump’s ban within 90 days of receiving the request by Facebook to rule on the issue. But the board postponed the ruling by a couple of weeks owing to overwhelming public interest in the case. The board said it has received more than 9,000 public comments about the case. 

Prior to being suspended from Facebook in January, Trump had published several inflammatory posts on its service. During the George Floyd protests, he said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended keeping the post up by saying the company sides with free expression and will remove posts only if they pose an “imminent risk of specific harms or dangers.”

Then, as the 2020 U.S. presidential election neared, Trump repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting would lead to fraud. Facebook responded by slapping Trump’s post with a label that didn’t debunk his claim but rather redirected users to its voting information center that included official information from state and federal election officials.

Following Trump’s suspension on Facebook in January, the then President was permanently banned on Twitter and indefinitely banned on YouTube.

Trump has since debuted his own website, called From the Desk of Donald J. Trump, where he’s again insulting his opponents and complaining about the 2020 election.

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