Facebook’s Ban of Trump Upheld by Oversight Board

SAN FRANCISCO — A Facebook-appointed panel of journalists, activists and lawyers ruled on Wednesday to uphold the social network’s ban of former President Donald J. Trump, ending any immediate return by Mr. 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 to deliberate the company’s content decisions, said the social network was right to bar Mr. Trump after he used the site to foment an insurrection in Washington in January. The panel said the ongoing risk of violence “justified” the suspension.

But the board also said that Facebook’s penalty of an indefinite suspension was “not appropriate,” and that the company should apply a “defined penalty.” The board gave Facebook six months to make its final decision on Mr. Trump’s account status.

“Our sole job is to hold this extremely powerful organization, Facebook, to be held accountable,” Michael McConnell, co-chair of the Oversight Board, said on a call with reporters. The decision “did not meet these standards,” he said.

The decision adds difficulties to Mr. Trump rejoining mainstream social media, which he had used during his White House years to cajole, set policy, criticize opponents and rile up his tens of millions of followers. Twitter and YouTube had also cut off Mr. Trump in January after the insurrection at the Capitol building, saying the risk of harm and the potential for violence that he created was too great.

But while Mr. Trump’s Facebook account remains suspended for now, it does not mean that he will not be able to return to the social network at all once the company reviews its action. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump had unveiled a new site, “From the desk of Donald Trump,” to communicate with his supporters. It looked much like a Twitter feed, complete with posts written by Mr. Trump that could be shared on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Mr. Trump’s continuing suspension from Facebook gave conservatives, who have long accused the social media companies of suppressing right-wing voices, new fuel against the platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has testified in Congress several times in recent years about whether the social network has shown bias against conservative political views. He has denied it.

In a tweet, the Republican members of the House judiciary committee said of the board’s decision, “Pathetic.”

The decision also underlined the power of tech companies in determining who gets to say what online. While Mr. Zuckerberg has said that 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 Mr. Trump in January.

“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.”

In a statement, Facebook said it was “pleased” that the board recognized that its barring of Mr. Trump in January was justified. The company added that it would consider the ruling and “determine an action that is clear and proportionate.”

Mr. 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. Mr. Zuckerberg has repeatedly referred to it as the “Facebook Supreme Court.”

But while the panel is positioned as independent, it was founded and funded by Facebook and has no legal or enforcement authority. Critics have been skeptical of the board’s autonomy and have said it gives Facebook the ability to punt on difficult decisions.

Each of its cases is decided by a five-person panel selected from among the board’s 20 members, one of whom must be from the country in which the case originated. The panel reviews the comments on the case and makes recommendations to the full board, which decides through a majority vote. After a ruling, Facebook has seven days to act on the board’s decision.

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.

In another case, the board ruled that Facebook had overreached by taking down a French user’s post that erroneously suggested the drug hydroxychloroquine could be used to cure Covid-19. Facebook restored the post but also said it would keep removing the false information following guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

In Mr. Trump’s case, Facebook also asked the board to give policy recommendations on how to handle the accounts of political leaders. The company does not have to adopt the recommendations.

For Mr. Trump, Facebook was long a place to rally his digital base and support other Republicans. More than 32 million people followed him on Facebook, though that was far fewer than the more than 88 million followers he had on Twitter.

Over the years, Mr. Trump and Mr. Zuckerberg also shared a testy relationship. Mr. Trump regularly assailed Silicon Valley executives for what he perceived to be their suppression of conservative speech. He also threatened to revoke Section 230, a legal shield that protects companies like Facebook from liability for what users post.

Mr. Zuckerberg occasionally criticized some of Mr. Trump’s policies, including the handling of the pandemic and immigration. But as calls from lawmakers, civil rights leaders and even Facebook’s own employees grew to rein in Mr. Trump on social media, Mr. Zuckerberg declined to act. He said speech by political leaders — even if they spread lies — was newsworthy and in the public interest.

The two men also appeared cordial during occasional meetings in Washington. Mr. Zuckerberg visited the White House more than once, dining privately with Mr. Trump.

The politeness ended on Jan. 6. Hours before his supporters stormed the Capitol, Mr. Trump used Facebook and other social media to try to cast doubt on the results of the presidential election, which he had lost to Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Trump wrote on Facebook, “Our Country has had enough, they won’t take it anymore!”

Less than 24 hours later, Mr. Trump was barred from the platform indefinitely. While his Facebook page has remained up, it has been dormant. His last Facebook post, on Jan. 6, read, “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence!”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Cecilia Kang contributed reporting from Washington.

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