Facebook Oversight Board punts ultimate Trump decision back to Facebook

Justin Hendrix / May 5, 2021

The Facebook Oversight Board today decided to uphold Facebook's suspension of former President Donald Trump, who was suspended from the platform hours after inciting a violent white supremacist insurrection at the United States Capitol to interrupt the certification of Electoral College votes that sealed his defeat in the 2020 Presidential Election.

But, the Oversight Board did not rule definitively: instead, it found that "it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension," since "Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account."

So, the Board "insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform," as "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."

Trump was banned after he posted statements in support of the insurrectionists on January 6th, 2021. That day, on which five people died and hundreds were injured in a bloody fight that saw a noose hung in front of the Capitol, Trump posted a statement to Facebook saying that his supporters should “remember this day forever” and that “these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

The Oversight Board said the two posts by Trump on January 6 violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines, in particular "rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence." Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the time noted that the restrictions on Trump’s account related to the heightened risk of violence or disruption during the transition period. The Oversight Board agreed.

The Oversight Board characterized the statement from the former President, which was submitted on his behalf by "the American Center for Law and Justice and a page administrator." The statement argued falsely that “It is stunningly clear that in his speech there was no call to insurrection, no incitement to violence, and no threat to public safety in any manner,” that there was a “total absence of any serious linkage between the Trump speech and the Capitol building incursion,” and that "outside forces" were responsible for the violence that day, including the Oath Keepers militia, which the statement says was "“parasitically using the Trump rally and co-opting the issue of the Electoral College debate for their own purposes.”

The Oversight Board claims it sent 46 questions to Facebook, and that in reply Facebook did not answer seven of them entirely and two of the partially. The Oversight Board decision says "The questions that Facebook did not answer included questions about how Facebook’s news feed and other features impacted the visibility of Mr. Trump’s content; whether Facebook has researched, or plans to research, those design decisions in relation to the events of January 6, 2021; and information about violating content from followers of Mr. Trump’s accounts."

A minority of the Oversight Board sought to require that "before Mr. Trump’s account can be restored, Facebook must also aim to ensure the withdrawal of praise or support for those involved in the riots."

Facebook failed to curb the Stop the Steal movement that gained pace on Facebook following Trump's defeat in the 2020 election, according to internal documents published by BuzzFeed News. Trump and his supporters sought to disenfranchise millions of voters, especially Black voters, in a challenge to the United States constitutional order. In May 2020, Trump used Zuckerberg's platform to threaten violence against racial justice protestors following the murder of George Floyd, but faced no repercussions then.

The Oversight Board made additional policy recommendations to Facebook, including hiring more specialized staff to deal with influential user accounts; clarifications of the company's "newsworthiness" policy that permits political leaders and other influential accounts to evade some enforcement of Facebook policies due to their status; and that Facebook should "undertake a comprehensive review of Facebook's potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence in the United States on January 6."

The quasi-independent Oversight Board was funded by Facebook to make crucial content moderation decisions and suggest policy changes. Its members are paid six-figure salaries and work about 15 hours a week, according to a report in the New Yorker. The Oversight Board began issuing decisions earlier this year.


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 & ...