SAN FRANCISCO — A Facebook-appointed panel of journalists, activists and lawyers Wednesday upheld the social network’s ban of former President Donald Trump, ending any immediate return by Trump to mainstream social media and renewing a debate about tech power over online speech.
Facebook’s Oversight Board, which acts as a quasi-court over the company’s content decisions, ruled that the social network was right to bar Trump after the insurrection in Washington in January, saying he “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.” The panel said that ongoing risk “justified” the move.
But the board also kicked the case back to Facebook and its top executives. It said an indefinite suspension was “not appropriate” because it was not a penalty defined in Facebook’s policies and that the company should apply a standard punishment, such as a time-bound suspension or a permanent ban. The board gave Facebook six months to make a final decision on Trump’s account status.
“They cannot invent new unwritten rules when it suits them,” board co-chairman and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in an interview.
“Our sole job is to hold this extremely powerful organization, Facebook, accountable,” Michael McConnell, co-chairman of the Oversight Board, said on a call with reporters. The ban on Trump “did not meet these standards,” he said.
In a statement, Trump did not directly address the board’s ruling. But he slammed Facebook, Google and Twitter — some of which have been major fundraising platforms for him — and called them corrupt. “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth,” he said.
The ruling opens a new chapter in the global debate over the power of social media giants, whose platforms have become the default political megaphone for many world leaders even as they have fomented misinformation. Regulatory action is also on the horizon, with lawmakers promising that by the end of the year, new legislation will hold companies accountable for how they have policed or have not policed disinformation during the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.
Facebook first suspended Trump for encouraging violence during the Capitol riot Jan. 6, before saying the next day that the ban was “indefinite.” Two weeks later, it referred the case to its 20-member oversight board, which is largely independent and funded by the social network.
In the ruling, the board agreed that Trump’s comments on the day of the insurrection “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.” The board noted the president’s references to the mob members as “patriots” and “special,” and his instructions to them to “Remember this day forever.”
It took issue with Facebook’s “indefinite” suspension of Trump, saying it was “vague and uncertain.”
The board also recommended that Facebook publish a report explaining its own role in fomenting the Jan. 6 attack.
The board said if Facebook decides to restore Trump’s accounts, it must be able to promptly address further violations. Among other recommendations, it advised against drawing a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users because anyone with a big audience can potentially cause serious risks of harm.
After the announcement, Facebook emphasized that Trump would remain off the social network for the time being, in accordance with the board’s order. The company also seemed noncommittal in its response.
“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communication, said in a blog post Wednesday, after canceling all planned interviews. “In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”
Trump’s continued Facebook suspension gave Republicans, who have accused social media companies of suppressing conservative voices, new fuel against the platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has testified before Congress several times about whether the social network has shown bias against conservative political views. He has denied it.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the Facebook board’s decision was “extremely disappointing” and that it was “clear that Mark Zuckerberg views himself as the arbiter of free speech.” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Facebook, which faces antitrust scrutiny, should be broken up.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted: “Is there anything more Orwellian than Facebook’s ‘independent oversight board,’ stocked with left-wing academics, deciding issues of free speech?”
Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also lashed out at Facebook.
“It’s a sad day for America,” he said on Fox News. “It’s a sad day for Facebook because I can tell you a number of members of Congress are now looking at do they break up Facebook, do they make sure that they don’t have a monopoly.”
Democrats were also unhappy. Wednesday’s ruling renewed calls from both parties for a greater regulatory role and to continue with efforts underway in the United States to limit the social media giant’s power. Some also called into question why the decision focused almost solely on one person, not on the powerful algorithms that spread hateful content virally.
“Policymakers ultimately must address the root of these issues, which includes pushing for oversight and effective moderation mechanisms to hold platforms accountable for a business model that spreads real-world harm,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, tweeted, “Donald Trump has played a big role in helping Facebook spread disinformation, but whether he’s on the platform or not, Facebook and other social media platforms with the same business model will find ways to highlight divisive content to drive advertising revenues.”
SWAY OVER GOP
For Trump, Facebook was long a place to rally his digital base and support other Republicans. More than 32 million people followed him on Facebook, although that was far fewer than the more than 88 million followers he had on Twitter.
The decision adds difficulties to Trump rejoining mainstream social media, a key source of his clout that he used during his White House years to directly cajole his tens of millions of followers, exploit their grievances, set policy and criticize opponents. Twitter and YouTube had also cut off Trump in January after the insurrection at the Capitol building, saying the risk and potential for violence that he created were too great.
But while Trump’s Facebook account remains suspended, he may be able to return to the social network once the company reviews its action. Trump still holds sway over Republicans, with his claims of a stolen election continuing to reverberate.
On Wednesday, House Republican leaders moved to expel Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from her leadership post for criticizing Trump and his election lies.
Trump’s case is the most prominent that the Facebook Oversight Board, which was conceived in 2018, has handled. The board, which is made up of 20 journalists, activists and former politicians, reviews and adjudicates the company’s most contested content moderation decisions. Zuckerberg has repeatedly referred to it as the “Facebook Supreme Court.”
The decision underlined the power of tech companies in determining who gets to say what online. While Zuckerberg has said he does not wish his company to be “the arbiter of truth” in social discourse, Facebook has become increasingly active about the kinds of content it allows.
To prevent the spread of misinformation, the company has cracked down on QAnon conspiracy theory groups, election falsehoods and anti-vaccination content in recent months, before culminating in the blocking of Trump in January.
Since the board began issuing rulings in January, it has overturned Facebook’s decisions in four out of the five cases it has reviewed. In one case, the board asked Facebook to restore a post that used Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, to make a point about the Trump presidency. Facebook had earlier removed the post because it “promoted dangerous individuals,” but complied with the board’s decision.
“This case has dramatic implications for the future of speech online because the public and other platforms are looking at how the oversight board will handle what is a difficult controversy that will arise again around the world,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University’s law school.
He added, “President Trump has pushed the envelope about what is permissible speech on these platforms and he has set the outer limits such that if you are unwilling to go after him, you are allowing a large amount of incitement and hate speech and disinformation online that others are going to propagate.”
Information for this article was contributed by Mike Isaac of The New York Times; by Elizabeth Dwoskin, Cat Zakrzewski, Eugene Scott, Heather Kelly and Rachel Lerman of The Washington Post; and by Matt O’Brien, Barbara Ortutay, Jill Colvin, Tali Arbel and David Klepper of The Associated Press.