The Facebook Oversight Board on Wednesday, May 45, 2021 upheld Facebook’s January 7 decision to suspend former US President Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram.
The Board found that Mr. Trump’s posts severely violated Facebook’s rules, and his words of support for those involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol building legitimized violence in a situation where there was an immediate risk to people’s lives.
“President Trump’s actions on social media encouraged and legitimized violence and were a severe violation of Facebook’s rules” said Thomas Hughes, Director of the Oversight Board Administration. “By maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible. Facebook’s decision to suspend the President on January 7 was the right one.”
While the Board concluded that Mr. Trump should have been suspended from Facebook and Instagram, it also found that Facebook failed to impose a proper penalty. Instead of applying one of its established account-level penalties for severe violations, Facebook devised an ‘indefinite’ suspension which is not included in their content policies. This arbitrary penalty gave Facebook total discretion over whether to lift or maintain the suspension, with no criteria that can be scrutinized by users or external observers.
“The Board rejects Facebook’s request for it to endorse indefinite suspension, which gives the company total discretion over when to lift or impose and isn’t supported by their content policies” said Thomas Hughes. “Anyone concerned about the power of Facebook should be concerned with the company making decisions outside of its own rules.”
Within six months of the Board’s decision, Facebook must reexamine this arbitrary penalty and impose one consistent with its own rules. This penalty must be based on the gravity of Mr. Trump’s violation and the prospect of future harm. This time period allows Facebook to implement the Board’s extensive policy recommendations.
The recommendations include:
In the future, if a head of state or high government official repeatedly posts messages that pose a risk of harm Facebook should either suspend the account for a definitive period or delete the account.
Facebook’s rules should ensure that when it imposes a time-bound suspension on an influential user, the company should assess the risk of inciting harm before the suspension ends. Influential users who pose a risk of harm should not be reinstated.
Facebook should publish a full report on its potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and political tensions that led to the events of January 6. This should be an open reflection on Facebook’s design and policy choices that may allow its platform to be abused.
Facebook should publish a new policy which would govern its response to crisis situations. This should set boundaries on Facebook’s discretion, including a requirement to review its decision within a fixed time.
Facebook should explain its strikes and penalties process, giving users more information, including how many ‘strikes’ have been assessed against them.