Civil rights and watchdog groups react to Facebook Oversight Board decision on Donald Trump

Justin Hendrix / May 6, 2021

Following the Facebook Oversight Board's decision to punt a final determination on the suspension of former President Donald Trump's account back to the company, numerous civil rights and watchdog groups that advocate around technology issues issued statements. While many embraced the decision to maintain the suspension of the former President, who incited a white supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th, many took issue with the Oversight Board as a construct, or suggested the focus should be on other matters more core to the Facebook business model.

The following statements are taken verbatim from a variety of organizations:

Erin Shields, National Field Organizer, MediaJustice

“Today, Facebook’s Oversight Board rightly affirmed the correctness of Facebook’s January 7 action to restrict the accounts of Donald Trump to protect the public from the hate and lies he spread to vast audiences through Facebook and Instagram. The Oversight Board’s move to uphold Trump’s suspension for six months and call for Facebook to complete its review of the decision requires CEO Mark Zuckerberg to take ownership of the company’s dangerous business model that profits from racialized hate and disinformation on the platform. Trump’s inflammatory social media posts not only encouraged the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 but endangered communities of color and other marginalized groups for years—violating Facebook’s Community Standards with impunity.

“The decision to permanently ban Trump from Facebook and Instagram should have been quickly and easily made by Facebook leadership, without resorting to creating and funding the company’s Oversight Board to deflect responsibility, given the voluminous amount of dangerous content posted by the ex-president. We hope the Board’s ruling today pressures Facebook to finally end the exemption of politicians from standards established to protect the public from the weaponization of the platform. The massive loophole that allows political leaders to spread hate and lies on Facebook to their outsized audiences, instead of being held to an even higher bar for civic discourse and accurate information, has made the world even more vulnerable to the vast disinformation campaigns and hateful content that put our lives at risk and threaten groups historically intimidated into silence.

“We need real leadership and institutional changes at Facebook to put community safety over profit, and we welcome the intervention of lawmakers to finally undercut the power these unaccountable platforms abuse, risking our lives and the integrity of our democracy.”

Adam Conner, Vice President of Technology Policy, Center for American Progress

"Today, the Facebook Oversight Board upheld Facebook’s decision to suspend President Trump from the platform. We are relieved to learn that he will, at least temporarily, no longer be allowed to spread lies about election fraud and incite violence, as he did on January 6 and the years that led up to it. In affirming this decision, the Oversight Board has taken a first step in preventing future Facebook-fueled tragedies, but it must continue to do everything in its power to stop hateful activities and disinformation targeting marginalized communities around the world. Facebook must now make the indefinite suspension a permanent disabling of the page and account, and it should do so immediately.

"Beyond individual cases, Facebook’s systemic problems promoting hate speech, violent rhetoric, and misinformation persist. As the only legitimate form of democratic oversight, lawmakers should investigate and address these systemic problems to prevent future violence."

Madihha Ahussain, Special Counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, Muslim Advocates

“This decision is not something to celebrate. It is a shameful indictment of Facebook and the Facebook Oversight Board that we just spent several months waiting to see if a man directly responsible for one of the darkest days in modern American history would be allowed to once again spread hate and lies online. Further, we are extremely concerned that the Board’s decision leaves the door open for Facebook to let Trump back on the platform in six months—an unacceptable and dangerous outcome. Letting Donald Trump back on Facebook will hurt Muslims. Donald Trump has used Facebook to spread hate and conspiracies about Muslims and immigrants and to amplify anti-Muslim white nationalists. His posts have caused Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to receive death threats. This cannot happen again.

On Facebook, Trump spread a false conspiracy theory about the presidential election and directed people to attend the January 6 event at the U.S. Capitol, which turned into a violent insurrection resulting in five deaths and dozens of injuries. Since then, Trump has continued to spread lies about the election and still commands support from the same groups involved in the insurrection. Permanently banning him from the platform was obviously the right thing to do to keep the public safe and it is extremely worrying that the Oversight Board would even question that.”

Angelo Carusone, President, Media Matters

It’s appropriate that Trump will remain off Facebook. But it never should have been up for debate. And although Trump wasn’t reinstated today, the platform still remains a simmering cauldron of violent extremism and dangerous disinformation. Not overturning Facebook’s original decision today is less than bare minimum, and insufficient to address the larger problems on the platform.

“But this whole affair is actually harmful in another way. Ultimately, talking about the Oversight Board as if it is anything other than a fig leaf and proxy for Facebook is a win for Facebook’s efforts to further shirk responsibility. This decision will make Facebook less likely to address the harms on its platform, not more, which means it is only a matter of time before that cauldron bubbles over again as it did on January 6.

“Every other major platform that Trump used banned him based on his abuses and the continued threat he posed. No theatrics and no drama. Facebook knew what needed to be done all along. Instead of addressing the core problems in its platform, the company exploited this fragile moment in our society in order to sell us the fiction of this oversight group. Don’t buy it. Now, they’re kicking the can down the road again.

“Unless Facebook permanently bans Trump immediately, we will be having this same dramatic sideshow in 6 months from now.”

Kyle Taylor, Real Facebook Oversight Board

"Today’s decision shows that the Facebook Oversight Board experiment has failed. This verdict is a desperate attempt to have it both ways, upholding the “ban” of Donald Trump without actually banning him, while punting any real decisions back to Facebook."

"Donald Trump has used Facebook to spread disinformation and incite hate and violence for years. Even when he posted ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ Facebook failed to act. He violated their terms of service again and again and again, facing no consequences. And yet, Facebook’s Oversight Board still could not summon the courage or common sense to uphold a permanent ban."

"As such we ask: what is the point of the Oversight Board? This is a Facebook-funded, Facebook-appointed body that has no legitimacy to make real decisions. Facebook’s attempt to divert attention from its fundamental failure to take responsibility for what’s on its own platform has itself failed."

Adrian Reyna, Senior Strategist, Disinfo Defense League

“Donald Trump and white supremacists have been given free reign to spread hate and conspiracy theories, manipulate facts and sow division online. Today’s decision from the Oversight Board is encouraging, but there is so much more work to do. Facebook has a long way to go to crack down on racism on the platform, and the damage is profound. The ecosystem of racialized disinformation doesn’t stay online; it spills out into the streets, inciting violent attacks against Black, Afro Latinx, Latinx, Asian and other communities of color. We saw this real world violence at the Capitol in January, which was a result of white nationalists openly using social media platforms to consume and spread manipulated information and plan an insurrection without consequence.

“Bad actors continue to deploy racialized disinfo, targeting people of color by either feigning Black and Brown identities to spread false information, or defaming movements for justice to discredit legitimate dissent and shift attention toward white grievance politics. Tech platforms are effectively amplifying this disinfo, instead of cracking down on it. People of color, women, and other marginalized groups are hurt the most when hate groups and disinfo spreaders make Facebook products their home.

“It’s time to change the online information ecosystem to reflect the values of good information. We support the following organizations that are working to fight racialized disinfo, hold tech platforms accountable and create a better internet for Black and Brown communities and better conditions for a multiracial, multiethnic democracy.”

Bridget Todd, Communications Director, UltraViolet

“Five people had to die in order for Facebook to suspend Donald Trump’s account, which he used to spread racist, misogynistic, anti-semitic, anti-immigrant and hateful rhetoric on top of lies and conspiracy theories to millions of people for years.

“While we commend the decision to uphold this ban, such action comes far too late for the millions of Ameican’s who have been impacted by Trump’s lies and deceptive content. Facebook always had the power to act, and it failed to do so.

“Let’s be clear, the white nationalist insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th is a direct result of Facebook's failure to uphold its own community standards.

“Events like the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the attack at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, violent threats to election workers in Georgia, and the recent plan to assault Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer all had their roots in disinformation spread on Facebook. UltraViolet and our allies have petitioned, emailed, met with Facebook staff, and raised red flags during countless campaigns over instances of hate speech, disinformation, calls for violence, and conspiracy theories that continue to permeate on this platform - and in multiple languages.

“Our message to Facebook leadership is simple: do better. Take responsibility, rather than hiding behind an Oversight Board to create the illusion of accountability. Facebook needs to ban Trump permanently, today. Anything short of a permanent ban is not enough. For too long, Facebook has put profit and user engagement before human life, and today does little to change that.”

Evan Greer, Director, Fight for the Future

"Facebook's surveillance capitalist business model is fundamentally incompatible with human rights. And its monopoly power is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and freedom of expression. When we focus on these individual, high profile moderation decisions like the Trump ban, we are utterly missing the point. Big Tech's harms are rooted in their practices of data harvesting and algorithmic manipulation. The vast majority of people who are silenced by Big Tech platform censorship are not former Presidents or celebrities, they are marginalized people, particularly sex workers and politically active Muslims who live outside the U.S. We can go back and forth all day about where the lines should be drawn, but simply demanding more and faster removal of content will not address the very real harms we are seeing. We need to strike at the root of the problem: break up Big Tech giants, ban surveillance advertising and non-transparent algorithmic manipulation, and fight for policies that address this parasitic business model while preserving the transformative and democratizing power of the Internet as a powerful tool for social movements working for justice and liberation."

Jelani Drew, Campaign Manager, Kairos Action

“How much longer will we have to wait and watch Facebook sit on the fence?

“It’s good to see the Oversight Board recognize that people in power need to be held to a higher standard and not behind Facebook’s "newsworthiness" exemptions. But overall this is not a proportionate response to what Trump has done so far. Facebook and the Oversight Board need to stop passing the decision making baton back and forth and take a definitive position. The truth is Facebook's algorithm and profit incentives are driving and supporting white supremacists being on their platform. Facebook needs to take a moral stance regardless of the bottom line — unless Facebook is going to hold a white supremacist rehab, there is a need for policies aimed at indefinite suspension of white supremacist people and accounts.”

Wade Henderson, Interim President and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

“The Board’s decision to uphold Donald Trump’s suspension is a step in the right direction toward countering misinformation and stopping violence. The suspension must be made permanent to stop the spread of Trump’s continued lies and prevent any further incitement to violence.

“The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol did not happen in a vacuum. It was paired with numerous impediments that voters faced during the 2020 election cycle amid a pandemic and exacerbated by the former president’s relentless efforts to undermine the freedom to vote, create deliberate barriers to the ballot box, and discount the votes of communities of color. We urge Facebook to learn from these mistakes and prevent the spread of harmful disinformation on its platform that leads to violence.”

Juanita Monsalve, Senior Marketing and Creative Director, United We Dream

“The decision by the Facebook Oversight Board to uphold Trump’s ban was the right one, however it does nothing to address how Facebook allows racialized disinformation to thrive on their platform. It took too long to hold Trump accountable for his dangerous white supremacist propaganda, and the unfortunate reality is that Facebook’s algorithm still allows similar dangerous disinformation from other users to proliferate. More needs to be done by Facebook to stop the spread of racialized disinformation on their platform. Facebook must stop passing the ball, take responsibility, and take systemic action to protect its users.

"Racialized disinformation on platforms like Facebook disproportionately impacts Black and brown people, with bad actors working to spread racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Black views. In recent months, anti-immigrant disinformation pushing a false narrative about migrants seeking asylum at our southern border has thrived on Facebook. This type of racialized disinformation is dangerous and has a real-world impact on the lives of Black and brown immigrants. Platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to – and must do more to – address the same racism and xenophobia that led to Trump’s ban in the first place.”

Sarah Morris, Director, New America's Open Technology Institute

“The Board made the right decision in this case, both in upholding the ban on the former president and in requiring Facebook to publish criteria for when or whether a suspended account will be restored. Every Facebook user will benefit from clear policies that govern not only content, but also potential penalties and avenues of recourse.

“Today’s decision affirms that Facebook failed to take responsibility in creating coherent and broadly applicable rules around user content moderation. The company cannot rely on other entities to do the hard work for them. Oversight theater only protects Facebook from criticism; internet users deserve clear policies and swift action when those policies are violated.

“Facebook has long failed to meaningfully and consistently moderate content, and the company has been particularly inconsistent in the case of the former president. Its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Trump’s account is an example of this inconsistency, as indefinite suspension is not an enforcement action defined within Facebook’s policies. Moreover, before creating and spreading misinformation around a stolen election and supporting a violent riot, the former president’s posts contributed to racial tension, xenophobia, and encouragement for hate groups. Yet Facebook failed to ever take action in response to those posts.

“Platforms should continue to improve accountability, transparency, and consistency across their content moderation policies, but policymakers should also take clear steps through regulation and antitrust enforcement to rein in the business model that allows social media companies to profit off of the violent and hateful rhetoric posted on those platforms. OTI has called for policymakers to enact rules that require greater transparency from platforms around their content moderation and algorithmic curation and advertising efforts, enact strong and comprehensive data privacy regulations, and leverage antitrust and competition policy to mitigate user harms. We will continue to advocate for policies that lead to a safe, accountable internet that fosters free expression.”

Jessica J. González, Co-CEO, Free Press

“While today’s Oversight Board decision to uphold Donald Trump’s suspension from Facebook is welcome, it’s a temporary Band-Aid that obscures a much larger problem: the greed-driven incentives that compel Facebook to trade public safety for corporate profit. Today’s ruling doesn’t end Facebook’s practice of allowing political leaders to break the rules, sow violence and undermine democracies. The company’s hate-and-lie-for-profit business model prevents it from taking any meaningful action against the scores of white supremacists who still use its services. The Oversight Board cannot be trusted to issue independent decisions in future cases as it’s part of the same toxic apparatus.

“If the board had lifted Trump’s suspension on Facebook and Instagram, the ex-president could be expected to continue his pattern of inciting hate against Black and Brown people, Asian Americans, immigrants, Muslim Americans, women, and many other groups. Hate and lies spread by Trump gave rise to deadly attacks at the U.S. Capitol, assaults on the El Paso and Charlottesville communities, and record levels of hate crimes. Facebook and other platforms must not allow any user to weaponize social media and endanger lives.

“We implore Facebook to stop the sham of its Oversight Board and take immediate steps to cease its poisonous business model. It must invest in stronger policies and enforcement mechanisms to stop the multilingual spread of hate and disinformation on its platforms across the world. Until global governmental intervention reins in Facebook, the company will continue to profit off of inflammatory political rhetoric, advertising and disinformation that targets diverse communities and undermines democracies."

Eliska Pirkova, Europe Policy Analyst, Access Now

“Access Now supports the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision to keep Trump off its platforms. Power and privilege cannot buy you free rein to attack democratic discourse — in this case, spreading dangerous disinformation and inciting violence.

"However, it is unclear whether Trump’s long record of fomenting discrimination against marginalized groups and spreading disinformation could justify an indefinite suspension.”

Gretchen Peters, Executive Director, CINTOC

"Maybe now the Oversight Board can focus attention on the astonishing amount of illegal activity that facebook algorithms actively amplify."

Jesse Lehrich, Co-founder, Accountable Tech

“First, let’s be absolutely clear: When a company establishes its own quasi-judicial global ‘supreme court’ for self-regulation, that’s not a constraint on its power – it’s an absurd embodiment of it.

"As we outlined last summer, the Facebook Oversight Board is a corporate PR tool designed to shirk responsibility and stave off actual regulation. Facebook slow-walked its rollout for three years, with its first rulings issued only after the company had helped incite an insurrection. Facebook wholly financed the Board, and wrote its restrictive charter and bylaws, which place Facebook’s core profit-drivers – like its algorithms and ad targeting practices – outside the Board’s purview. Facebook selected the Board’s trustees and its members, who receive 6-figure Facebook-funded salaries for working 15 hours per week. (To confirm these details, contact the Board’s Head of Communications – Mark Zuckerberg’s longtime personal speechwriter.)

"Before finally suspending the outgoing president and punting the case to the Oversight Board, Facebook spent years bending over backwards to appease him and his allies. They did so even as their own Civil Rights Auditors expressed ‘grave concerns’ about the platform’s fact-checking exemption for politicians and inaction on Trump’s racist posts, warning presciently, ‘With only months left before a major election, this is deeply troublesome as misinformation, sowing racial division and calls for violence near elections can do great damage to our democracy.’

"The Oversight Board should not green-light Trump’s return to Facebook, where he will continue stoking hate and division, spouting election lies, and spreading COVID disinformation. The Oversight Board should also not be treated as a legitimate mechanism of accountability.”

Heidi Beirich, Co-Chair, Change the Terms Coalition and Co-Founder, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism

“The Facebook Oversight Board found that the suspension of Donald Trump was a necessary step to protect public safety. However, in kicking the future of Trump’s account back to Facebook, the Board has again opened the door for Trump to continue his behavior in the future. Facebook should immediately make this indefinite suspension permanent, rather than waiting the six months allowed.

“Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen, magnified over and over again on Facebook, incited his supporters’ storming of the Capitol. Facebook should never have allowed its platform to be abused by Trump and the people who planned the attack. They knew how dangerous his vitriol was, and suspending Trump was a long-overdue move.

“This decision also has implications well beyond Trump. It sends a clear and necessary message to extremist politicians around the world who have used Facebook and other forms of social media to gain power and undermine democracies. It isn’t just Trump: Facebook has a moral obligation to ensure that its platform is not a place where hateful activities and extremism can grow and where democracies are undermined.”

Corynne McSherry, Legal Director and David Greene, Civil Liberties Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Today’s decision from the Facebook Oversight Board regarding the suspension of President Trump’s account — to extend the suspension for six months and require Facebook to reevaluate in light of the platform’s stated policies — may be frustrating to those who had hoped for a definitive ruling. But it is also a careful and needed indictment of Facebook’s opaque and inconsistent moderation approach that offers several recommendations to help Facebook do better, focused especially on consistency and transparency. Consistency and transparency should be the hallmarks of all content decisions. Too often, neither hallmark is met. Perhaps most importantly, the Board affirms that it cannot and should not allow Facebook to avoid its responsibilities to its users. We agree. (more)

David Brody, Digital Justice Initiative, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

“For the good of the nation, Facebook must immediately and permanently ban former President Trump. He used Facebook to endanger our democracy, empower hateful violence, and promote racial division. Continuing to drag this decision out only causes more harm.”

“In their decision today, the Facebook Oversight Board made many of the same errors that Facebook makes in its own enforcement decisions. It did not evaluate the full context of the case and it used legal technicalities to avoid answering hard questions. For example, it failed to address Trump’s repeated use of Facebook to inflame hate and racism, or his long history of spreading divisive lies and disinformation prior to the 2020 election. Over-reliance on formalist schools of legal analysis entrenches dominant power structures by turning a blind eye to the big picture.”

Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

“It was right to remove Donald Trump from Facebook’s platform. Facebook’s Oversight Board has determined that the decision was justified but that an indefinite suspension is overly discretionary. The Oversight Board has now charged Facebook with deciding if Trump should be allowed to return in the future. Trump should not be allowed to return.

“We believe that content moderation decisions are hard. But if Facebook is going to engage in content moderation, then it should apply its standards uniformly. There is no doubt that Trump routinely, repeatedly, and brazenly violated those standards. While Trump’s posts on Jan. 6 in the middle of an insurrection may have caused the most immediate harm, they were part of a years-long series of posts that merit permanent suspension. We agree with the minority of the board that ‘emphasizes that Facebook’s rules should ensure that users who seek reinstatement after suspension recognize their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future.’

“The primary mitigating factor counseling against disabling Trump’s account was that he was an elected official – a factor that we agree is consequential, because it confers a legitimacy on a figure and adds weight to the presumption that every person’s content should be shared. But that factor no longer applies; and, in any case, Trump’s violations of Facebook’s standards – and, fundamentally, the real-world harm he caused with his social media posts – were so far-reaching and severe that he should have been removed from Facebook even as president."

Lisa Macpherson, Senior Policy Fellow, Public Knowledge

“The fact that so many organizations and news outlets waited with bated breath for the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision on Donald Trump’s account just proves that too few digital platforms have too much power over political and social discourse. The creation of the Oversight Board is a sign that Facebook will go to great lengths to convince regulators that it can hold itself accountable for enforcing its own content moderation policies. The Board’s comments in its decision prove Facebook is not actually doing so. We need more enforcement of existing antitrust law, potentially new antitrust law to suit the unique characteristics of the technology sector; more assertive competition policy to create more competition and choice; and laws that protect the American people from disinformation that promotes violence and hate.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...