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Facebook oversight board upholds Trump ban for now

·Chief National Correspondent
·6 min read
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Facebook’s suspension of former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection was upheld by an independent oversight board on Wednesday, but the panel also said that Facebook can’t indefinitely keep Trump in limbo and must reach a “proportionate response.”

“The Board found that, in 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. At the time of Mr. Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions,” the oversight board found in its report. “As president, Mr. Trump had a high level of influence. The reach of his posts was large, with 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram. 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.

“However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension. It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored,” the board wrote. “In applying this penalty, Facebook did not follow a clear, published procedure. ‘Indefinite’ suspensions are not described in the company’s content policies. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.”

And so the board kicked the final decision back to Facebook, and the implication is that it wants the social media giant itself to decide whether to permanently disable Trump’s account or not.

“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 wrote.

Trump, who continues to promote the fiction that he won the 2020 election, said in a statement on Wednesday that his “free speech has been taken away.” He also claimed it was a sign that others, not himself, are “afraid of the truth.”

Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, Nick Clegg, posted a statement that said: “We thank the @OversightBoard for the care and attention they gave this case. We will now consider the board’s guidance and develop a response that is clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP(2), Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP(2), Getty Images

The board gave some guidance on how it thinks Facebook should treat influential users differently than others. “Heads of state and other high officials of government can have a greater power to cause harm than other people. If a head of state or high government official has repeatedly posted messages that pose a risk of harm under international human rights norms, Facebook should suspend the account for a period 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 wrote.

It also recommended that Facebook “rapidly escalate content containing political speech from highly influential users to specialized staff who are familiar with the linguistic and political context.”

And the board also gave a recommendation that seemed to echo some of the most fundamental and biting critiques of Facebook by reformers, who say that the platform’s basic design and business model amplifies and spreads lies and disinformation because it makes them more money.

The board said Facebook should “undertake a comprehensive review of Facebook’s potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence in the United States on January 6. This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused.”

Immediate reactions to the oversight board’s decision echoed this deeper concern about the basic design of Facebook and other social media and internet platforms. 

“We’re talking about scale, targeting, amplification,” said Peter Pomerantsev, an author who studies disinformation online at the London School of Economics’ Institute of Global Affairs and at Johns Hopkins University. 

Pomerantsev participated in an online panel organized by the U.S. Agency for Global Media and Aspen Digital, along with others, including Maria Ressa, a Filipino American journalist who has been arrested multiple times by the Philippine government and faces jail time there for doing independent journalism that is critical of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The design [of Facebook] is itself destructive. There’s a fundamental flaw that needs to get fixed for our information ecosystem globally to get better,” Ressa said during the panel discussion. “How do you change the incentive scheme — surveillance capitalism — the profit motive where hate actually makes more money?”

She said that Facebook needs to demonstrate leadership and stop trying to pretend it is a neutral platform, but that it will take government regulation to make this happen because annual profits of $29 billion are so vast that it clouds the company’s judgment.

“When you make that much money, it stops you from thinking medium and long-term and about the impact it can have on society,” Ressa said. “So now it’s regulation.”

The board gave Facebook six months to make its decision.

Trump was suspended from Facebook on Jan. 6, the day that his supporters violently assaulted the U.S. Capitol and attempted to stop the certification by Congress of the 2020 election results. Trump egged on his supporters for months with baseless lies about a rigged election and then did so again on Jan. 6 with a speech on the National Mall, where he urged his followers to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.”

The post that triggered Facebook’s suspension was one in which Trump seemingly celebrated the assault and urged his followers to “remember this day forever.” Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting an insurrection, and a majority of senators voted to convict Trump for the same. Seven Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in the vote, which fell short of the 67-vote supermajority required for a conviction.

On Jan. 21, Facebook referred the decision about whether to reinstate Trump to the Facebook Oversight Board, a 20-person panel established in 2019. The board is supposed to be independent of the rest of Facebook, and its decisions about posts or users on Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook also owns) are binding. The board includes former politicians, human rights advocates and writers from all over the world.

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