Facebook Board Upholds Ban of Donald Trump

The decision five months in the making calls for reassessment later this year, fueling public debate about whether social media platforms are intruding too much into policing the public forums they provide.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

(CN) — With approval from its board, Facebook continued its ban of Donald Trump on Wednesday, but the decision says Facebook has a duty to reassess the indefinite penalty it handed the former U.S. president following the Jan. 6 riot at the nation’s capital.

“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 board found, contrasting the ban against penalties that are usually imposed on Facebook users, including removal of the offending content, a time-bound period of suspension, or permanent disabling of their pages and accounts.

In a statement following that decision Wednesday, Trump doubled down on his false claims that he only lost the 2020 election to now-President Joe Biden in November because of voter fraud.

Trump, who has emphasized that he may run again, urged his followers to “never give up.”

“Had gutless and clueless MINORITY Leader Mitch McConnell… fought to expose all of the corruption that was presented at the time, with more found since, we would have had a far different Presidential result,” Trump said.

Facebook originally banned Trump on Jan. 7, citing ongoing concerns about violence from his supporters, dozens if not hundreds of whom broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in effort to interfere with the counting of the electoral votes.

The riot followed weeks of Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, despite his receiving about 7 million fewer votes than his Democratic challenger. President Biden won 306 out of a possible 538 electoral votes. 

Twitter, which had been Trump’s preferred method of communication — particularly toward the end of his tempestuous tenure in the White House — had been the first to ban him. Facebook and YouTube followed.

“We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote at the time. 

Facebook began considering what to do with Trump’s account immediately after it suspended him, then referred the matter to its oversight board — an independent board comprised of 40 people from law, technology, media and journalism who have the power to overturn Facebook content-moderation decisions. 

A five-member panel prepared Wednesday’s decision, and a majority of the board then voted to approve, saying Wednesday that two posts that Trump had made on January 6 “severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines,” according to the ruling.

During Feb. 9 debate on whether it is constitutional to impeach Donald Trump now that he is no longer president, lead impeachment manager Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland quoted a tweet from Trump that he posted on Jan. 6 and then deleted as violence raged in and outside of the U.S. Capitol. (Image courtesy of CSPAN via Courthouse News)

In the first, Trump wrote: “We love you. You’re very special,” about the rioters, and in the second he wrote about “great patriots” and called on the public to “remember this day forever.”

“The Board found that, in 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,” its ruling states. “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.”

Though the board said Trump’s posts violated Facebook’s prohibition on the support or praise of violating events, including the riot that was then underway at the U.S. Capitol, the final outcome for Trump’s account remains in flux.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the panel wrote. “The board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”

Facebook must complete its review of this matter within the next six months.

Conservatives and free-speech advocates have condemned the ban, which they say exemplifies the burgeoning effort of one political group to eliminate the speech of other groups with whom they disagree and the outsized role Silicon Valley plays in policing the public discourse. 

“It’s clear that Mark Zuckerberg views himself as the arbiter of speech,” said Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, despite Zuckerberg deferring the decision to the oversight board. 

Blackburn further called the decision “extremely disappointing.”

Republican Congressman Jim Jordan called for the government to break up Facebook, which continues to undergo antitrust scrutiny from lawmakers. 

Democrats expressed dismay with Facebook on Wednesday too, saying that the social media platform is a breeding ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories that gave rise to the Capitol riots and continue to pose a threat. 

Proponents of the ban say Trump continues to have manifold opportunities to make his views known, including by doing interviews with the press, but has used social media to weaponize his message and push divisive and sometimes violent rhetoric. 

Back in January, Facebook vice president of external affairs Nick Clegg called Trump’s ban a response to “extraordinary circumstances: a U.S. president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy.”

On Wednesday, the board noted that Trump had 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram, making his posts highly influential.

“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in imposing account-level restrictions and extending those restrictions on January 7,” the decision states.

Filings in the criminal case against Capitol insurrectionists include this photo from the Jan. 6 riot, showing one man reclining in Speaker Pelosi’s office, his feet on the desk. (Justice Department via Courthouse News)

Trump had no claims to a First Amendment case, as there is no right to use the platforms provided by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others. Many pundits believe a government official forcing private companies to publish the speech of officials would in fact violate the First Amendment rights of the private companies themselves. 

But free-speech advocates argue banning Trump sets a dangerous precedent and is a sign that Silicon Valley wields enormous power and prompts questions about who is and should control the public discourse. 

Facebook’s oversight board members include Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel Prize laureate and journalist; Stanford law professor Michael McConnell; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former prime minister of Denmark; and Julie Owono, a human rights and internet rights advocate.

It is unclear which members were on the five-person panel, or what the breakdown of the majority vote was. The decision does note that a minority of the board called on Facebook to “take steps to prevent the repetition of adverse human rights impacts and ensure that users who seek reinstatement after suspension recognize their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future.”

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