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Facebook ban on Trump upheld – but social network slammed

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Facebook has been slammed for introducing arbitrary rules and punishments that could have undermined its January 7 suspension of Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram, and has been ordered to publish a full report on its potential contribution to the events around the attack on the U.S. Capitol building the day before.

An Oversight Board appointed to review Facebook decisions on bannings from the platform has upheld the Trump suspension.

The Board found that then-president 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 legitimised violence in a situation where there was an immediate risk to people’s lives. 

“President Trump’s actions on social media encouraged and legitimised violence and were a severe violation of Facebook’s rules,” says 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.” 

The Board concluded not only that Trump should have been suspended from Facebook and Instagram, but also 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 its content policies. This arbitrary penalty gave Facebook total discretion over whether to lift or maintain the suspension, with no criteria that can be scrutinised 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,” says 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 Trump’s violation and the prospect of future harm.

The recommendations of the Board 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 that 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.  

For more details on this decision and to learn more about the Board, visit https://oversightboard.com/news/226612455899839-oversight-board-upholds-former-president-trump-s-suspension-finds-facebook-failed-to-impose-proper-penalty 

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