Mark Zuckerberg pledged $130 million of Facebook’s own money to appoint and fund the company’s Oversight Board, a group he’d hoped would handle the tough decisions he didn’t want to make.
On Wednesday it announced the findings in its biggest case to date: whether to reinstate the account of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
But rather than announcing a definite decision, the independent board told CEO Zuckerberg that he would have to make the call.
While the board did uphold Facebook’s ban on Trump, confirming a ruling made in the wake of the Capitol riots in January, it also gave the company a further headache by saying it was wrong to suspend Trump indefinitely and will have to come up with a better punishment for him.
“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account,” the Board said in a statement.
“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 platform now has six months to come up with a solution.
Zuckerberg has pledged that the company would abide by the board’s rulings.
Trump was initially banned from Facebook in the hours immediately following the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. While the violent assault on the Capitol was still happening, Trump posted a video addressing the rioters, saying, "We love you, you're very special."
The initial ban was for 24 hours, but a day later Facebook announced it was extending the ban indefinitely because “the risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
The case was then referred to the Oversight Board by Facebook on Jan. 21. The decision was delayed after the board said it had received 9,666 comments from the public. Trump also submitted a written statement during the decision-making process.
The Board assigned a five-person panel from its group of 20 experts. The panel then presented its decision to the entire board for approval. Decisions must be approved by a majority of members to be issued.
The Board agreed with Facebook’s rationale for suspending Trump, saying that the former president’s posts maintained “an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, [and] 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 was established to act as an independent “supreme court” made up of policy experts who would rule on contentious decisions regarding content that was taken down or allowed to remain online. While Facebook users can and have referred cases to the board, in the case of the Trump decision, it was the company itself that referred the case.
However, many critics of Facebook have said the Oversight Board is simply an expensive smokescreen to deflect attention from the core problems afflicting the platforms.
“Facebook's Oversight Board is a Facebook-paid, Facebook-appointed body created by Facebook to use to launder its most politically sensitive decisions,” a spokesperson for the activist group called the Real Facebook Oversight Board, said in an emailed statement.
Facebook’s Oversight Board was first announced in September 2019 but didn’t hold its first meeting until more than a year later. It is made up of experts from the fields of data privacy, internet governance, and journalism.
While the Oversight Board has already issued a number of rulings, the Trump decision has attracted an enormous amount of attention. Many see the decision as setting a precedent for how Facebook will handle controversial and problematic posts from world leaders.
But critics claim that whatever the outcome, Facebook will be able to say the call was made by an independent body of experts, so it can wash its hands of the decision.
“It is a corporate PR tool designed to shirk responsibility and stave off actual regulation,” Jesse Lehrich, the co-founder of activist group Accountable Tech, said in a statement.
However, Nicolas Suzor, an internet governance expert who’s on the Facebook Oversight Board, told VICE News that he and his colleagues on the board “expect our decisions to be taken into account not just in individual cases but in similar future cases. We also provide extensive policy guidance that we expect Facebook to implement.”
“We’re in this for the long haul, so I expect that we’ll continue taking cases on important issues related to our policy guidance in order to monitor Facebook’s progress on improving its general policies into the future,” Suzor added.
Trump was also banned from Twitter and YouTube in the wake of the insurrection. Twitter has said that its ban is permanent, while YouTube said it would reinstate Trump’s account when the threat of violence has subsided sufficiently.
Even if Trump’s Facebook account had been restored, it ‘s unclear if he would have returned to using it. Unlike his Twitter account, which he used obsessively over the last five years, the former president’s Facebook account was typically used to re-post his tweets, share campaign videos, and call for donations.
Because Trump was a president, his posts were subject to much less scrutiny than those from regular users because Facebook grants political leaders greater scope to violate its policies. Those protections would no longer apply to Trump in his post-presidency if his account is ultimately restored.
Just hours before the Oversight Board’s decision was announced, Trump launched a page on his website where he—and he alone—can post updates that others can then share on Twitter and Facebook. So far the posts on the feed are criticisms of Republican politicians like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, as well as claims perpetuating the myth that last November’s election was stolen from him.
Trump’s adviser Jason Miller said this site is separate from the social media platform the ex-president plans to launch.
Trump himself called Facebook’s decision “a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our country.” In an emailed statement, Trump claimed that “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before.”
“The People of our Country will not stand for it! These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”