Former President Donald Trump won’t return to Facebook — at least not yet.
Four months after Facebook suspended Trump’s accounts, having concluded that he incited violence leading to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the company’s quasi-independent oversight board upheld the bans. But it told Facebook to specify how long they would last, saying that its “indefinite” ban on the former president was unreasonable. The ruling, which gives Facebook six months to comply, effectively postpones any possible Trump reinstatement and puts the onus for that decision squarely back on the company.
That could leave Facebook in the worst of all possible worlds — one in which Trump’s supporters remain enraged over the bans, his critics pushing for broader social-media regulation and the company stuck with a momentous issue it clearly hoped the oversight board would resolve.
The decision only “kicks the can down the road,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, who said it highlighted the need for greater government oversight of social platforms.
The board ruled that Facebook was correct to suspend Trump’s account four months ago. But it said the company erred by applying a vague penalty and then passing the question of whether to ban Trump permanently to the board.
“Indefinite penalties of this sort do not pass the international smell test,” oversight board co-chair Michael McConnell said in a conference call with reporters. “We are not cops, reigning over the realm of social media.”
In a statement, Trump did not address the decision directly, but said that actions by Facebook, Twitter, and Google are “a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country.” He added: “These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price.”
The board agreed with Facebook that that two of Trump’s Jan. 6 posts “severely violated” the content standards of both Facebook and Instagram.
“We love you. You’re very special,” Trump said to the rioters in the first post. In the second, he called them “great patriots” and told them to “remember this day forever.”
Those violated Facebook’s rules against praising or supporting people engaged in violence, the board said, warranting the suspension. Specifically, the board cited Facebook’s rules against “dangerous individuals and organizations,” which prohibit anyone who proclaims a violent mission and bans posts that express support or praise of these people or groups.
But it insisted that the company needed to take responsibility for its decision.
“Facebook should either permanently disable Trump’s account or impose a suspension for a specific period of time,” said board co-chair Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Danish prime minister.
The board said that if Facebook decides to restore Trump’s accounts, it must be able to promptly address further violations. Among other recommendations, it advised against drawing a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users because anyone with a big audience can potentially cause serious risks of harm.
There was some dissent within the board, according to its report on the decision. A minority of board members sought to characterize Trump’s statements about the election being stolen, coupled with praise for the rioters, as a violation of Facebook’s rules against inciting violence through calls for action or by spreading misinformation and unverifiable rumors. But the board said that adding that as a violation wouldn’t have affected its final ruling.
Facebook has long straddled that issue, granting political figures greater leeway than it allows ordinary users because, it argued, even their rule-breaking statements were important for citizens to hear.
“The same rules should apply to all users on Facebook, no matter how influential they are,” said board spokesman Dex Hunter-Torricke, a former speechwriter for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
If anything, he said, Facebook should look at the context of posts more carefully.
“A world leader or a very influential public figure has an enormous voice and reach, they are incredibly influential and that means their speech has the power to create all sorts of additional risks for people,” Hunter-Torricke said. “And Facebook needs to take that into account when acting on things which may potentially create harm.”
Facebook created the oversight panel to rule on thorny content issues following widespread criticism of its problems responding swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and nefarious influence campaigns. The board’s earlier decisions — nine of them before Wednesday — have tended to favor free expression over the restriction of content.
The board, which has 20 members and will eventually grow to 40, did not reveal how it voted on Trump’s suspension. It said a minority of members emphasized that Facebook should require users who seek reinstatement after being suspended to “recognize their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future.”
The decision has implications not only for Trump but for tech companies, world leaders and people across the political spectrum — many of whom have wildly conflicting views of the proper role for technology companies when it comes to regulating online speech and protecting people from abuse and misinformation.
Despite the board’s censure of Facebook, some renewed the argument that the oversight panel is nothing but a distraction.
“Let’s be clear: what should have been swift and decisive action from Facebook to remove Trump from its platform years ago was instead a months-long bureaucratic process because Facebook’s leadership refuses to take responsibility for their harms against our democracy,” said Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson, a longtime critic of Facebook. The board “is a ruse to stave off regulatory action,” he said. Facebook can’t be trusted to regulate itself and Congress and the White House should step in.
A day before the decision, Trump unveiled a new blog on his personal website, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.” While the page includes a dramatic video claiming, “A BEACON OF FREEDOM ARISES” and hailing “A PLACE TO SPEAK FREELY AND SAFELY,” the page is little more than a display of Trump’s recent statements — available elsewhere on the website — that can be easily shared on Facebook and Twitter, the platforms that banished him after the riot.
Barred from social media, Trump has embraced other platforms for getting his message out on his own terms. He does frequent interviews with friendly news outlets and has emailed a flurry of statements to reporters through his official office and political group.
This story has been corrected to note that the board has not upheld a permanent ban of Trump.
Associated Press Writers Jill Colvin in Washington, Tali Arbel in New York and David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.