For the moment, at least, former President Donald Trump won’t regain access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts, which the world’s largest social network suspended in January following the deadly US Capitol Hill riot.
In its most high-profile case, an oversight board tasked with reviewing Facebook’s toughest content decisions upheld Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump from the platform — but noted that the company should review how long he remains barred. Trump was suspended because of concerns that his online remarks could incite violence after the mayhem at the US Capitol.
“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” the board said in its decision, which was released on Wednesday. “The Board insists that Facebook 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.”
The board accused Facebook of seeking to “avoid its responsibilities” and gave it six months to complete the review.
“This penalty must be based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm,” the board said.
Trump didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A statement submitted to the board on behalf of Trump by the American Center for Law and Justice and a page administrator said that Trump’s remarks on the social network following the Capitol Hill riot were “neither intended, nor would be believed by any reasonable observer or listener to be a call for violent insurrection or lawlessness.”
Facebook said it’s reviewing how long Trump should remain suspended.
“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,” Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, said in a blog post.
Politicians, advocacy groups and others have been watching the case closely. The decision highlights the balance social networks try to strike between mitigating harm, such as potential violence, and encouraging free expression. The case was also seen as a test of the independence of the oversight board, which was formed and funded by Facebook, but operates separately from the social network.
Other social media sites, including Google-owned YouTube and Snapchat, have also taken action against Trump. Twitter, the former president’s favored way to communicate with his fans, barred him permanently.
Trump has 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram.
Moderating political speech
Facebook and other social networks had been under pressure for years to crack down on Trump’s accounts for spreading misinformation, inciting violence and other rule violations. While Facebook typically has a hands-off approach to political speech, politicians aren’t exempted from its policies against inciting violence.
In one of its most controversial decisions, Facebook came under fire, including from its, for not removing a post from Trump in the aftermath of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man from Minnesota. In the post, Trump said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase with racist origins dating back to the civil rights era.
Twitter hid a Trump tweet with the phrase behind a public interest notice for violating its rules against glorifying violence. Facebook, however, determined the post didn’t violate its rules and read it as a “warning against state action” because it referenced the National Guard.
Social media companies typically avoid censoring political speech but have also repeatedly faced allegations that they’re biased against conservatives, which they deny. Then came the Capitol Hill riots, which prompted Facebook to take the unprecedented step of booting Trump from its platform indefinitely out of concerns that his remarks could potentially provoke violence.
Before the riot, Trump, who was still the US president at the time, told his supporters they needed to “fight like hell” and stated “we’re going to the Capitol.” Facebook removed two posts from Trump that reiterated the baseless claims the 2020 election results were fraudulent, though he also told his supporters to go home. Trump lost the election to Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The company said Trump’s posts violated its rules against “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” before barring him from posting on Facebook and Instagram. The board agreed that Trump’s posts ran afoul of these policies and also made recommendations about how the company should handle speech by influential leaders. If a high government official repeatedly posts messages that could undercut human rights, the social network should suspend the account for a time that is “sufficient” to protect against imminent harm.
“Suspension periods should be long enough to deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion,” the board said.