Facebook’s Oversight Board tells Social Media Platform to Reassess Trump’s Suspension

May 6, 2021 – Facebook’s Oversight Board has upheld Facebook’s Jan. 7, 2021 decision to temporarily restrict former President Donald Trump’s access to his Facebook page and Instagram account, but said Facebook must reassess when the suspension will be lifted. The then-president was restricted from using his accounts after the Capitol Hill riots on Jan. 6, when supporters of the Republican president stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

According to the Board’s ruling, Facebook was “justified” in suspending Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending the suspension on January 7, due to the imminent risk of violence. However, calling the decision an “arbitrary penalty,” the Board said it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose suspension indefinitely.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty,” the Board said in its ruling.

In January, Facebook asked the Oversight Board, an autonomous body that reviews decisions made by Facebook regarding content moderation, to review the decision to suspend Trump’s account. The board opened the case for feedback from the public and received 9,666 comments. The case was then assigned to five randomly chosen board members, who took into account information submitted on behalf of Trump as well as from Facebook, outside experts and public comments. The decision was approved by the Board through a majority vote.

Facebook’s normal penalties comprise the removal of content that violates guidelines, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account. The social media platform is not allowed to keep a user off the platform for an indefinite period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.

The Oversight Board demanded that Facebook “justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform” within six months. This means that it’s still possible for Trump to return to the platform before the end of the year, but Facebook could still decide to ban Trump permanently, like Twitter did when it deleted Trump’s account off the platform. YouTube also temporarily restricted Trump from posting on the platform, and the ban has yet to be lifted.

The Board also made policy recommendations for Facebook to implement in developing clear, necessary and proportionate policies that promote public safety and respect freedom of expression.

In a policy advisory statement, the Board made several recommendations to guide Facebook’s policies about risks of harm posed by political leaders and other influential figures. Although all users should face the same rules, posts by influential users pose a higher probability of imminent harm, thus making it important for Facebook to enforce its rules quickly.

The Board’s decision comes as Trump launched a new communications website, which claims to publish content “straight from the desk” of the former president. Since his social media ban, Trump has been issuing press releases which the website is hosting. Users are also able to share these posts on their own Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country. Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States…” a May 5 entry on the website states.

The ban on Trump

Trump was banned by Facebook just days before the end of his presidency Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump came just days before the end of his presidency, during which he spread misinformation about COVID-19 and baseless claims of election fraud. Facebook did not ban him during this time, but labeled some of his statements as misinformation and removed several others.

The final nail in the coffin came after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. due to “unfounded” allegations of electoral fraud, spread by Trump and the Republican party. The violence resulted in the deaths of five people and many more injuries. As the riots were occurring, Trump took to Facebook and posted the following two statements.

Both of these posts were removed for violating Facebook’s Community Standard on Dangerous Individuals and Organizations. The ban was extended to 24 hours but considering the upcoming inauguration, the block was pushed “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

“We believe the risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook said in a statement at the time. However, his pages and old posts have still been accessible for the duration of his suspension.

What is the Oversight Board?

Mark Zuckerberg has referred to the Oversight Board as the Supreme Court. The Board, which came into effect in October 2020, is an autonomous body that Facebook has created owing to the challenges that the company faces with regards to content moderation on its platforms.

The Board is funded by a $130 million trust, set up by Facebook, that pays each of the members a six-figure sum. Facebook says the board is legally independent, and that its rulings will be both binding and transparent.

In January, the Board ruled on its first five cases. It overruled Facebook’s original decision in four of them and upheld only one. The social media platform is bound by the Board’s bylaws to abide by its decisions, but there are several limits on the Board’s scope of influence. For example, the Board cannot tell Facebook to delete Groups on the platform, just individual pieces of content or pages. It also can’t demand that the platform change the algorithms that decide which content is amplified in users’ newsfeeds.

However, digital rights activists and experts from around the world have expressed concerns with regards to its independence from Facebook.

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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