Facebook Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld the social network’s ban on former president Trump for encouraging violence following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a decision that holds major implications for how the speech of political leaders should be policed online.
The decision to uphold the ban is a blow to Trump’s hopes to post again to Facebook or Instagram anytime soon, but it opens the door to him eventually returning to the platforms. Facebook must complete a review of the length of the suspension within six months, the board said.
“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the board said in its decision.
The board said that Trump “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible” by maintaining a narrative that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.
The oversight board said, however, that it was not appropriate for Facebook to vary from its normal penalties when it made the ban indefinite. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing posts, imposing a limited suspension or permanently disabling an account, the board said.
“As Facebook suspended Mr. Trump’s accounts ‘indefinitely,’ the company must reassess this penalty,” the board said. “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 ruling pushes Facebook to more clearly define what the penalties are for world leaders who violate its rules, a topic that sparked worldwide debate even before Trump and that hangs over the company as Trump considers his own future.
“The Oversight Board is clearly telling Facebook they can’t invent new, unwritten rules when it suits them,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a co-chair of the Oversight Board and a former prime minister of Denmark, on a call with reporters.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a blog post responding to the board’s criticism that the company will “now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate.”
“In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended,” Clegg wrote.
Trump, in a written statement responding to the decision, attacked the actions of Facebook, Twitter and Google as a “total disgrace and an embarrassment.”
“Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before,” Trump said.
“The People of our Country will not stand for it!” he added. “These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”
Its decision focused on two Trump posts from Jan. 6, both praising people involved in the Capitol attack: one post telling the rioters, “We love you. You’re very special,” and the other calling them “great patriots,” and saying “remember this day forever.”
“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,” the board said.
The opinion reflected some dissent from within the board. A minority of the board would have gone further and ruled that Trump’s posts were out of line not only as simple praise of the rioters but as a “call to action” inciting violence. A minority also urged the board to take into account Trump’s posts from earlier in his presidency that “contributed to racial tension and exclusion,” but a majority chose to decide the case on more limited grounds.
The opinion also urges Facebook to launch an internal investigation to review “its own potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud.”
The decision does not apply to Twitter, YouTube or any of the other services that banned or restricted Trump in the wake of the Capitol attack.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in January that the service faced an “extraordinary and untenable circumstance” given the risk of real-world violence. He said in a series of tweets that banning Trump was the right decision, even as he said it raised questions about how to keep the internet open to all.
Twitter in 2018 amended its rules to carve out an exception for “world leaders,” allowing their tweets to stay up in some cases when the same speech by others would be removed. Since Trump was banned, the company has been gathering opinion about whether to revise the policy.
YouTube suspended Trump’s channel in January, preventing him from posting but leaving most existing videos in place. CEO Susan Wojcicki said in March that presidents must follow the same rules as everyone else, including a ban on incitement to violence, and she said the channel would remain suspended while the risk of violence remains elevated.
“We will lift the suspension of the Donald Trump channel when we determine that the risk of violence has decreased,” Wojcicki said March 4 in an online event hosted by the Atlantic Council.
Under YouTube’s rules, a channel is removed entirely if it has three strikes, or violations, in 90 days.