Facebook's appointed Oversight Board has just issued its most notable content moderation decision to date, and they say that the ban of President Trump in the wake of January 6th was justified.
Social media watchers and politicos have been eagerly awaiting the Oversight Board's ruling on the Trump ban, which in a way marks a new chapter in debates about free speech and its limits on social platforms. The Board has only been operational since the late fall, and has only ruled in a handful of cases — mostly overturning decisions made by Facebook's own moderators. But with the Trump case, they wade into far more high-profile and fraught waters, and it remains to be seen whether this purportedly objective and philosophically rigorous body will gain traction and respect in these debates.
In the decision, issued Wednesday by a five-member panel of the 20-member Oversight Board, they found that Trump "severely violated" Facebook's Community Standards on January 6 when in a post he praised the Capitol insurrectionists as "great patriots," and said "We love you. You're very special." He made the same remarks on his Twitter account — and with Twitter being his preferred platform, his posts were typically cross-posted to Facebook from there.
The Board found that Trump "created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible" by perpetuating his unfounded narrative about election fraud, and "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." Therefore, Facebook was "justified" in penalizing him and suspending his account.
However, the ruling also suggests that it was "not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension." The Board notes that Facebook's typical penalties for violations included finite suspensions for defined periods of time, and they have given Facebook six months to "reexamine [this] arbitrary penalty."
"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 writes.
Politicians on the right have, naturally, seized on the Board's ruling to once again call for regulators to "break up" Facebook, and the like.
Break them up. https://t.co/J6nnipCG6v— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) May 5, 2021
And sad old Trump, who yesterday unveiled a promised "communications platform" that he has been developing for several months — which is actually just a blog that looks like his Twitter account without followers — used that platform to tweet/post, "What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country. Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth." Trump did not directly address anything that was said by the Oversight Board, which has no control over Twitter or Google.
The ruling nonetheless has a momentousness to it — even if not everyone agrees that Facebook's Oversight Board is the fully independent and objective body the company purports it to be.
And as The Verge notes, the Board also directly addresses the policy adopted by Twitter (and implicitly followed by Facebook during Trump's tenure) that gives "world leaders" a pass for things they say while they hold political power. "It is not always useful to draw a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users," the Board writes. "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."
"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,” says Stanford law professor Nate Persily, in a statement to the New York Times. "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."
Facebook said in a statement to the Times that it was "pleased" with the Board's ruling, and said it would "determine an action that is clear and proportionate" in the coming months, regarding the future of Trump's account.
The Oversight Board announced that it would take up the ban on Trump in late January, two weeks after Facebook's January 7 decision to indefinitely suspend his account. A week later, the Board issued its first set of rulings on a set of cases it took up in December, and it ruled against the company's decisions in four out of five of the cases.
In one case, the Board ruled that Facebook was wrong to take down a post by a user who, ahead of the 2020 election, compared comments by Trump to a mis-attributed quote by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. According to Facebook's guidelines, such quotes should always be accompanied with a denouncement of the hate figure — and the Board ruled that Facebook's policy was "not sufficiently clear" about how a user must frame such a quote to pass muster.
49 percent of Americans believe Trump should remain banned from social media, according to a new Pew Research poll released this week. But his presence on Twitter and/or Facebook may be key to his future political ambitions, whatever they may be. As Axios reported on Tuesday, members of Trump's "inner circle" believe that his future political viability hinges on his access to social media.
And, not at all surprisingly, the former president is "missing being at the center of the political universe and may not be able to resist running [for president] again."
Photo: Michael Vadon/Wikimedia