“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board said in its public decision Wednesday.
Now the ball is back in Facebook’s court, as it decides how to reply to the board’s recommendations, while the former president remains banned for the time being.
Here’s what you need to know about the decision and what happens next.
Trump is still banned from Facebook, for now
Trump is still locked out of his account and will remain unable to post to the site at least as long as it takes Facebook to consider the board’s recommendations. That means his near-total blackout from major social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, remains unchanged. Trump does have other ways to communicate online. He can put out news releases through his office or post thoughts and announcements to his new website.
While the Oversight Board upheld the social network’s ban of Trump, it did send the decision back to the company to clarify. Facebook had announced an “indefinite” suspension of Trump on Jan. 7, but the board said that isn’t one of the company’s standard penalties for breaking its rules. Instead, Facebook typically issues time-limited suspensions or disables the user’s account permanently.
The board said that Facebook created a problem when it established a new type of suspension for Trump.
We may not know Trump’s fate on the site for several months
In asking Facebook to make its decision clearer, the board is keeping the state of Trump’s account in a state of limbo. The board said that the company has six months to review its suspension of Trump and decide on a response that is consistent with its rules, for example if he will be permanently banned or if the suspension should only last a specific amount of time. However, Facebook says that request is not binding and that it will respond publicly in 30 days, as per the rules it established when creating the board. That means Facebook isn’t required to comply with the board’s recommendation that it clarify Trump’s penalty.
The company had previously said it would respect the decision of the board to uphold or overturn its enforcement, but would consider anything else the board recommended as merely a suggestion.
The board said that Facebook needs to determine a “proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.” It noted the typical response to a post that violates policies is to remove the post. In this case, Facebook initially suspended Trump’s account for 24 hours, then said the risk remained and it made the ban “indefinite.”
The board also noted that it doesn’t always make sense for Facebook to enforce its policies differently for influential users, such as world leaders, compared to average users. Facebook has a “newsworthiness” policy that allows it to leave up some posts from world leaders even if they violate policies, though the company said it did not apply that policy in this case.
The board urged Facebook to “address widespread confusion about how decisions relating to influential users are made.”
Facebook acknowledges it needs to get to work, Trump scorns Big Tech
In a short blog post from its vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, Facebook said Wednesday that it would “carefully review” recommendations from the board on several policy issues. Clegg acknowledged that the board declined to say how long Trump’s suspension should last, but did not explicitly say if Facebook would commit to the six-month review timeline.
“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” he wrote.
Trump issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before.”
Trump has railed against Big Tech companies for their content moderation policies for more than a year, saying that they are limiting his right to speak. He called out Facebook, Twitter and Google in his statement Wednesday, saying what they “have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country.”
Facebook needs to come up with transparent policies and stick to them, board says
The Oversight Board issued a rebuke of Facebook’s abilities to transparently set and stick to its own policies and made several suggestions of changes it could make.
It said the company should publicly explain its decision-making when it takes action on influential figures’ accounts and make sure to assess risks before a suspension comes to its end, if it is time-limited. Facebook should also quickly send political posts in question to specialized staff who are not facing “undue influence,” said the board. It also asked Facebook to clarify how it applies the newsworthiness exception.
The board recommended that Facebook start a thorough review of its “potential contribution” to the spread of baseless claims of election fraud that swirled following the 2020 election, something that ultimately helped lead to the attack on the Capitol.
There are limits to what the Oversight Board can do
The board’s decision, an 11,910-word document that includes policy proposals, shows the limits of what the board can actually do to hold Facebook accountable. In the document, the board said it had asked Facebook 46 questions and that the company declined to answer seven of them. That included one about Facebook’s design and algorithms and the role those potentially played in the spread and visibility of Trump’s posts. Facebook also declined to answer a question about whether a suspension or deletion would have an impact on its ability to target ads.
Critics of the board’s setup say this decision suggests the body is lacking real teeth to hold Facebook accountable, and that the board is a way for Facebook to avoid blowback for its most consequential decisions. Bouncing the decision back to Facebook could also be seen as a sign that the board itself is aware of those concerns, and wants to ensure that the final call rests with Facebook itself.
“The whole thing is like a giant charade, a game,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University and social media expert. “If anything this board is drawing away attention from the real issue of the risks of government use of social media.”