Trump still blocked from Facebook — for nowMay 5, 2021
Former President Donald Trump’s Facebook account should remain suspended for the time being, the company’s oversight board announced Wednesday — agreeing that his rhetoric had created “a serious risk of violence” but saying the social network had been “arbitrary” in ousting him indefinitely.
“Within six months of this decision, Facebook must reexamine the arbitrary penalty it imposed on January 7 and decide the appropriate penalty,” the board said in its ruling.
The decision comes nearly four months after Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other major social media platforms suspended or blocked Trump’s accounts following the deadly attack on the Capitol that a crowd of his supporters staged on Jan. 6, as lawmakers were certifying now-President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The prospect of Trump’s return to the world’s largest social media platform has potentially huge implications for American politics, the 2024 election and the balance of power between world leaders and the U.S.-based social media giant.
And it’s a judgment call that Facebook cannot escape the responsibility for making, the board’s ruling made clear — throwing a major wrench in CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to have the board make some of its thorniest decisions.
“Facebook must make its decision and be held accountable for whatever it decides,” Michael McConnell, a former Republican-appointed federal judge and a member of the oversight board, said during a call with reporters after the ruling was announced.
Board members acknowledged that they may have to review the company’s handling of Trump yet again if someone appeals Facebook’s eventual decision. “I would say it’s a substantial possibility,” McConnell told reporters.
The hashtag “#DeleteFacebook” was trending among U.S. Twitter users less than an hour before the announcement, in a sign of the passions the case has roused. Reaction to the decision was swift from across the political spectrum — and not in Facebook’s favor, as lawmakers revived calls for taking action to curb the company’s power over American political discourse.
“It’s a sad day for Facebook because I can tell you, a number of members of Congress are now looking at, do they break up Facebook?” former Rep. Mark Meadows, who served as Trump’s chief of staff during the final year of his presidency, said on Fox News. “Do they make sure that they don’t have a monopoly?”
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the House Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, tweeted: “Break them up.”
Meanwhile, House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) tweeted after the ruling that the ultimate problem is Facebook and other social platforms, not Trump.
“Every day, Facebook is amplifying and promoting disinformation and misinformation, and the structure and rules governing its oversight board generally seem to ignore this disturbing reality,” Pallone wrote. “It’s clear that real accountability will only come with legislative action.”
The parties remain largely divided, however, in how they want to clamp down on Silicon Valley, with Democrats focusing on concerns such as hate speech and disinformation while Republicans accuse the tech companies of censoring conservatives.
Facebook has said the board’s decision would be binding, and confirmed Wednesday that Trump remains booted for now. The company “will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” Facebook’s global affair chief Nick Clegg said in a statement after the board’s ruling.
In upholding Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump, the board found that two of his posts the day of the storming of the Capitol “severely violated” the company’s rules against praising or supporting individuals engaged in violence, including his remarks referring those in the mob as “great patriots” and “very special.”
It also noted that Trump “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible” by spreading false claims about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections, and thus that Facebook was “justified” in suspending him.
But the panel rebuked the company for issuing an indefinite ban with no criteria for if or when Trump’s posts or account could be restored.
The verdict comes after Democratic officials, civil rights leaders and other advocates spent years calling on Facebook to crack down on posts by Trump they argued blatantly violated its policies against harassment, bullying, hate speech and rhetoric that incites violence. Conservatives tech critics, meanwhile, have railed against social media companies’ takedowns of Trump’s accounts as an affront to free speech online and evidence of an anti-GOP bias among Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook and Twitter.
The former president has sought to maintain a public presence in the interim by issuing tweet-like official statements through his office. In recent months he’s also mused about returning to social media by launching his own rival platform.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have cited the case as prime evidence that tech giants are abusing their online dominance to muzzle conservative speech. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said that “censoring the sitting President of the United States has serious free speech consequences that will extend far beyond President Trump’s time in office.”
“If they can ban President Trump, all conservative voices could be next,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Twitter after the decision. He promised, “A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech.”
Scrutiny of Facebook’s handling of Trump’s rhetoric heightened after the deadly attack by his supporters, who used social networks including Facebook to organize ahead of the Jan. 6 riot and posted on the site in real-time about their rampage through the Capitol. Critics, especially Democrats, said the company had been far too lenient in allowing Trump to sow doubts about the integrity of the 2020 elections and too slow to respond to viral hoaxes and violent rhetoric about the outcome.
“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Jan. 7 post announcing that Trump would be suspended from the platform.
A few weeks later, Facebook asked the oversight board to review its decision. The group of 20 legal scholars, former government officials and other outside experts has the power to permanently overturn Facebook’s content decisions. Though Facebook appointed the board members, they say they operate independently.
Wednesday’s ruling was the highest-profile decision in the board’s brief history since launching ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections.
The panel had overturned Facebook’s decisions on six out of eight prior cases, a streak that Trump critics feared meant the former president was headed for a surprise return to the platform. Those cases all involved user posts that Facebook had removed for violations ranging from hate speech to Covid-19 disinformation to incitement of violence, but Trump’s case marked the first time the panel reviewed a case directly involving a global leader’s account.
The board’s deliberations have been a source of massive global intrigue, prompting more than 9,000 submissions for public comment about how it should rule. The board said the soaring public interest caused them to extend the deadline for comment on Trump’s case, and eventually to delay the decision on his suspension itself beyond the usual 90-day review period.
The ruling adds to a string of losses for Trump’s presence across social media platforms. He’s been permanently booted off of Twitter and indefinitely suspended from YouTube due to the risks of further violence in the wake of the storming of the Capitol. A number of other social network platforms where Trump was not as active, such as Snapchat and the Amazon-owned Twitch, have also either permanently or indefinitely suspended the former president.
YouTube has left open the door for Trump’s possible return, with CEO Susan Wojcicki saying his account will be reinstated when the risk of violence subsides. But the oversight board’s ruling closes the door on any chance of him returning immediately to Facebook and Instagram, where Trump racked up over 35 million and 24 million followers, respectively.
The social media companies’ actions against Trump drew pushback from unexpected corners of the political spectrum, including U.S. progressive icon Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Sanders told The New York Times in March that he’s not “particularly comfortable” with Twitter barring the former president from expressing himself, despite believing that Trump is a “racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian.”
Merkel spokesperson Steffen Seibert, meanwhile, called Twitter’s ban “problematic” and said that the “right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance.” Some European leaders have expressed reservation about private companies making calls about where to draw limits on free speech and expression online, and suggested governments should regulate the issue instead.
As part of its ruling Wednesday, the oversight board also issued recommendations to the company about how to better handle situations around world leaders and potentially harmful content, as well as what it should do in response to the Capitol riot.
Unlike the board’s decisions on content appeals, the policy recommendations are not binding, but Facebook must respond to them within 30 days under its rules.
The board called on Facebook to reexamine and consider overhauling how it handles content from political leaders and other influential users, noting that “heads of state and other high officials of government can have a greater power to cause harm than other people.”
Facebook in the past has relied on what it calls a newsworthiness exemption to justify leaving up posts by global leaders that otherwise might violate its policies, under the rationale that users have a right to see notable posts by prominent government officials. But former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a member of the oversight board, told reporters that “newsworthiness will never be sufficient reason to keep up content from public figures that incite violence.”
The board also urged Facebook to launch and publicly publish a “comprehensive review” of how the company may have contributed to the spread of unfounded election fraud claims that led to the violence at the Capitol. “This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused,” the board said.
Emily Birnbaum and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.