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Facebook's oversight board upholds Trump suspension, but says company must revisit decision

The Facebook Oversight Board has upheld the decision by the social media giant to suspend former U.S. president Donald Trump's account, though it also had criticism for the company's policies. 

The social media network blocked Trump's account shortly after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol

Former U.S. president Donald Trump speaks to crowd at at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Jan. 20, 2021. Facebook's oversight board on Wednesday upheld the social media network's decision to suspend Trump's account. (Luis M. Alvarez/The Associated Press)

The Facebook Oversight Board has upheld the decision by the social media giant to suspend former U.S. president Donald Trump's account, though it also had criticism for the company's policies. 

Since the day after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump's social media accounts have been silent — muzzled for being used as online megaphones to try to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power following the presidential election.

The board said in its decision that it agreed with Facebook that two of Trump's Jan. 6 posts "severely violated" the content standards of both Facebook and Instagram. Those posts, it said, contravened the company's policy by praising or supporting people engaged in violence.

While upholding the suspension, the board faulted Facebook for the way it made the decision.

The ongoing risk of serious violence justified Facebook's suspension at the time, but it "was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an 'indefinite' suspension," the board said.

"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 says Facebook has six months to reexamine the "arbitrary penalty" it imposed on Jan. 7 and decide on another penalty that reflects the "gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm."

It could decide to institute a permanent censure or restore Trump's access at that time, board members said in a media briefing. But the new penalty must be "clear, necessary and proportionate" and consistent with Facebook's rules for severe violations, the written decision says.

The board said if Facebook decides to restore Trump's accounts, the company must be able to promptly address further violations.

On Tuesday, Trump unveiled a new blog on his personal website, From the Desk of Donald J. Trump. The page is little more than a display of Trump's recent statements — available elsewhere on the website — that can be easily shared on Facebook and Twitter, the platforms that banished him after the riot.

After Wednesday's ruling, Trump disparaged Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as a "total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country" in a statement, which did not specifically address any of the oversight board's findings.

The social media companies, the 45th president said, "must pay a political price."

Politicians, free speech experts and activists around the world were watching the decision closely. It has implications not only for Trump but for tech companies, world leaders and people across the political spectrum — many of whom have wildly conflicting views of the proper role for technology companies when it comes to regulating online speech and protecting people from abuse and misinformation.

Reaction from Republican House minority leader:

After years of handling Trump's inflammatory rhetoric with a light touch, Facebook and Instagram took the drastic step of silencing his accounts in January. In announcing the unprecedented move, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risk of allowing Trump to continue using the platform was too great.

"The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden," Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on Jan. 7.

Board co-chair clarifies role

Facebook created the oversight panel in 2018 to rule on thorny content on its platforms following widespread criticism of its difficulty responding swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and nefarious influence campaigns.

The board's 20 members were named two years later. They include legal and technology experts from around the world as well human rights activists and journalists.

In a media briefing after Wednesday's decision was released, co-chair Michael McConnell, a Stanford law professor, said the board's sole duty was to assess Facebook's performance with respect to its policies.

"We are not cops ranging over social media and solving the world's ills," he said.

Facebook Oversight Board member Helle Thorning-Schmidt, seen in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec. 1, 2017, said the decision on Wednesday was one of 'enormous complexity.' (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The board's decisions so far — all nine of them — have tended to favour free expression over the restriction of content. In its first rulings, the panel overturned four out of five decisions by the social network to take down questionable material. It ordered Facebook to restore posts by users that the company said broke standards on adult nudity, hate speech, or dangerous individuals.

Board co-chair Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former prime minister of Denmark, said the Trump ruling was one of "enormous complexity" and that Facebook can make improvements in its transparency and create more rigorous guidelines to prevent arbitrary decisions.

Facebook will have 30 days to formally respond to the board's ruling.

Reaction from Democratic chair of House energy and commerce committee:

Critics of Facebook, however, worry that the oversight board is a mere distraction from the company's deeper problems — ones that can't be addressed in a handful of high-profile cases by a semi-independent body of experts.

"To some degree, Facebook is trying to create an accountability mechanism that I think undermines efforts to have government regulation and legislation," said Gautam Hans, a technology law and free speech expert and professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

"If any other company decided, well, we're just going to outsource our decision-making to some quasi-independent body, that would be thought of as ridiculous."

Other platforms also censuring Trump

YouTube's CEO Susan Wojcicki has said the platform will lift its suspension on Trump's channel when it determines the risk of real-world violence has decreased.

She said YouTube would determine the risk of violence by looking at signals such as government statements and warnings, increased law enforcement around the country and violent rhetoric on the platform itself.

Twitter has said it does not foresee restoring Trump's account. The social media company in 2020 began affixing warnings on tweets that contained misinformation and did so with Trump messages on several topics, including on mail-in voting and the result of the 2020 presidential election.

In the wake of protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Twitter pulled down a post last year in which Trump said: "Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seen testifying remotely to Congress in 2020, has generally expressed more reluctance in regulating speech on the company's platform than has Twitter. (U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee/Reuters)

Twitter said it believed the post glorified violence against protesters, but Zuckerberg said in a lengthy post that while he had a "visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric," the post would remain on Facebook pages as it contained a needed warning that the government could be deploying force in response to the protests.

Facebook has long granted greater leeway than it allows ordinary users because, it argued, even their rule-breaking statements were important for citizens to hear. Zuckerberg has said the company was not interested in regulating "political speech," although the divisive 2020 U.S. election saw it provide context on some posts with respect to rules around voting.

The defenders of Trump having a presence on Facebook have pointed to several world leaders, including some autocrats who have stifled free speech, maintaining a presence on the platform. Facebook has also been criticized for helping accelerate campaigns against oppressed minority groups, including the Rohingya in Myanmar.

With files from CBC News

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