Facebook Inc’s oversight board on Wednesday upheld the company’s suspension of former U.S. President Donald Trump but said the company was wrong to make the suspension indefinite and gave it six months to determine a “proportionate response.”
Trump called the decision and his banning across tech platforms “a total disgrace” and said the companies would “pay a political price.”
The board’s much-awaited verdict has been watched for signals on how the world’s largest social media company will treat rule-breaking political leaders in the future, a key area of controversy for online platforms.
The board, created by Facebook to rule on a small slice of its content decisions, said the company was right to ban Trump following the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters.
But it said Facebook inappropriately imposed a suspension without clear standards and that the company should determine a response consistent with rules applied to other users of the platform. It said the company could determine that Trump’s account could be restored, suspended temporarily or permanently banned.
“Indefinite penalties of this sort do not pass the international or American smell test for clarity, consistency, and transparency,” said former federal judge Michael McConnell, co-chair of the Oversight Board, during a press conference after publishing its decision on Wednesday.
In its decision, the board said Facebook refused to answer some of the 46 questions it posed, including those on how its news feed and other features affected the visibility of Trump’s posts and whether the company planned to look into how its technology amplified content as it had done in the events leading to the Capitol siege.
The board said Facebook’s existing policies, such as around deciding when material is too newsworthy to remove, need to be more clearly communicated to users. It also called on Facebook to develop a policy that governs how it handles novel situations where its existing rules would be insufficient to prevent imminent harm.
Facebook indefinitely blocked Trump’s access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts over concerns of further violent unrest following the January 6 riot. It was one of a slew of social media sites that barred the former president, including Twitter Inc, which banned him permanently.
“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” Nick Clegg, Facebook vice president of global affairs and communication, said in a blog entry following the decision. “In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”
Trump called the move “an embarrassment to our Country,” and added 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.”
A board spokesman said the decision had not been shared with Trump’s team in advance of the announcement.
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.
Several academics and civil rights groups publicly urged the board to block Trump permanently, while Republican lawmakers and some free-expression advocates blasted the decision. Political leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders expressed concern that private companies could silence elected officials on their sites.
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 Trump.
The binding verdict means Trump will not for now be able to return to Facebook’s platforms, where he had a combined 59 million followers across Facebook and Instagram, His campaign spent about $160 million on Facebook ads in 2020, according to Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive’s campaign tracker.
On Tuesday, Trump launched a new web page to share messages that readers can then re-post to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. A senior adviser has said Trump also plans to launch his own social media platform.
The decision marks a milestone for the recently-established board, which Facebook financed with $130 million. The body has been hailed as a novel experiment by some researchers but criticized by other critics who have been skeptical over its independence or view it as a PR stunt to deflect attention from the company’s more systemic problems.
“Today’s decision shows that the Facebook Oversight Board experiment has failed,” said a group of academics, experts and Facebook critics known as the “Real Facebook Oversight Board.” “This verdict is a desperate attempt to have it both ways, upholding the ‘ban’ of Donald Trump without actually banning him, while punting any real decisions back to Facebook.”
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, said in a tweet, “Facebook is more interested in acting like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate. If they can ban President Trump, all conservative voices could be next. A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, applauded the board’s decision. “Facebook is not the public square,” Hoyer said in a Washington Post live interview. “So they’ve made a determination and they don’t want to be an avenue to convey that, through their medium, and I think they have the right to do that,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer said the impact of social media and the tech companies has drawn a lot of interest on Capitol Hill and lawmakers plan to review outdated regulations governing them. “We’re going to look at that closely,” he said.