Facebook oversight board upholds Trump suspension

WASHINGTON – Facebook oversight board on Wednesday (May 5) upheld the company’s suspension of former US president Donald Trump but gave the company six months to determine a “proportionate response” going forward, a verdict that may chart how social media will treat rule-breaking world leaders in the future.

The company inappropriately imposed an indeterminate suspension without clear standards, the board said, requiring a company review.

The board said Facebook should determine a response that is consistent with rules applied to other users of the platform.

“Facebook left the indefinite suspension in place and referred the entire matter to the oversight board, apparently hoping the board would do what it had not done,” said Mr Michael McConnell, co-chair of the oversight board, during a press conference after publishing its decision on Wednesday.

McConnell added: “Indefinite penalties of this sort do not pass the international or American smell test for clarity, consistency, and transparency.”

Facebook indefinitely blocked Mr Trump’s access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts over concerns of further violent unrest following the Jan 6 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of the former president.

“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” Mr Nick Clegg, Facebook vice-president of global affairs and communication, published in a blog entry following the decision. “In the meantime, Mr Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”

At the time of the suspension, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post that “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great”. The company later referred the case to its recently established board, which includes academics, lawyers and rights activists, to decide whether to uphold the ban or restore Mr Trump.

“Both of those decisions are no-win decisions for Facebook,” said Dr Kate Klonick, an assistant law professor at St John’s University who embedded at Facebook to follow the board’s creation. “So, offloading those to a third party, the Oversight Board, is a win for them no matter what.”

The binding verdict marks a major decision for the board, which rules on a small slice of challenging content decisions and which Facebook created as an independent body as a response to criticism over how it handles problematic material. Facebook has also asked the board to provide recommendations on how it should handle political leaders’ accounts.

Tech platforms have grappled in recent years with how to police world leaders and politicians that violate their guidelines.

Facebook has come under fire both from those who think it should abandon its hands-off approach to political speech and those who saw the Trump ban as a worrying act of censorship. Mr Trump was permanently banned from Twitter, where he has more than 88 million followers.

Mr Trump, who has been sending out short, e-mailed press releases, continued to promote election misinformation in one on Monday, saying: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”

On Tuesday, he launched a new Web page to share messages that readers can then repost to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. A senior adviser has said Mr Trump also has plans to launch his own social media platform.

Facebook has said Mr Trump, who has 35 million Facebook followers, would be subject to the same policies as ordinary users after the end of his presidency. This means that if he returned to the platform, his posts would now be eligible for fact-checking. Following a widening of the board’s scope in April, Facebook users would also be able to appeal the former president’s posts to the board.

Controversial decision

Mr Trump’s suspension was the first time Facebook had blocked a current president, prime minister or head of state. Facebook’s oversight board said it received more than 9,000 comments from the public on the Trump ban, the most it has had for a case so far.

Several academics and civil rights groups have publicly shared their letters urging the board to block Mr Trump permanently, while Republican lawmakers and some free expression advocates have criticised the decision.

Since taking action against Mr Trump, social media companies have faced calls from some rights groups and activists to be more consistent in their approach to other world leaders who have pushed or broken their rules, such as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Leader Ali Khamenei, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and lawmakers linked to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I would hope that they’re also thinking about the precedent-setting of this,” said Ms Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director and a fellow at the Washington DC-based Bipartisan Policy Centre. “What does that look like internationally, what does that look like in the long term?”

The oversight board, an idea that Mr Zuckerberg first publicly floated in 2018, currently has 20 members, including former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and several law experts and rights advocates. Decisions need only majority approval.

The board, which some have dubbed Facebook’s “Supreme Court”, has been hailed as a novel experiment by some researchers but blasted by other critics who have been sceptical over its independence or view it as a PR stunt to deflect attention from the company’s more systemic problems.

It is funded through a US$130 million (S$173 million) trust created by Facebook and has so far made rulings on a small number of cases from hate speech to nudity.

Facebook’s Mr Clegg told Reuters in January that he was “very confident” of the company’s case on Mr Trump’s ban and said “any reasonable person” looking at Facebook’s policies and the circumstances would agree.

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