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5 May 2021updated 07 May 2021 5:09pm

Facebook’s Oversight Board refuses to give the company an easy answer on banning Trump

The company's Oversight Board has called on Facebook executives to decide for themselves whether to permanently ban the former president from the platform.

By Oscar Williams

Facebook’s Oversight Board has unveiled its long-awaited verdict on the company’s suspension of Donald Trump from its platforms earlier this year.

Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were suspended in January after he was accused of stoking violence ahead of the storming of the US Capitol. On Wednesday (5 May) the Oversight Board upheld the suspension, but declared that Facebook was wrong to impose the penalty indefinitely.

The board called on Facebook executives to decide whether to restore Trump’s accounts, further suspend them for a specific period of time, or delete them entirely. Facebook now has six months to make a decision. It has also been urged to create a clear definition of what it means by “newsworthy” posts and any protections they deserve, and to undertake a review of the role Facebook may have played in the run-up to the insurrection.

During a media call on Wednesday afternoon, the former Danish prime minister and Oversight Board co-chair Helle Thorning-Schmidt expressed frustration at how Facebook had handled the case. “Facebook’s decision to impose an indefinite suspension that wasn’t supported by their own rules and then to request the Oversight Board to endorse this move was actually wrong,” she told reporters. 

“The board’s role is to ensure that Facebook’s rules and processes are consistent with its content policies, its values and respect human rights. In applying an indeterminate and standard-less penalty and then referring the case to the board to resolve, Facebook actually shirked its responsibilities.”

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[See also: Why Donald Trump’s new social media platform could be so dangerous]

Thorning-Schmidt said that by indefinitely suspending Trump’s account, Facebook had invented “new unwritten rules” that didn’t apply to other users of the site. Her fellow co-chair Michael McConnell, a constitutional scholar, went further, arguing that it wasn’t the only case in which the company had engaged in “ad-hockery”. 

“We see over 20,000 appeals from users who are frustrated at not knowing what the rules were, not knowing why Facebook took a [decision] and I believe that the very existence of an independent Oversight Board is designed to change the culture of content moderation on the platform,” he said.

“When Facebook knows there is someone looking over their shoulder and insisting upon clarity, transparency, consistency, fairness, then it is I think it is much more likely we’ll be seeing some internal reform because I hope and really expect that this sort of decision will change the culture of content moderation at Facebook, not just for Mr Trump, but for users high and low.”

As Martha Gill wrote last month, there are a number of limits to the powers of the committee, whose members are paid by Facebook for their work. The Oversight Board can review only a tiny proportion of cases, its policy suggestions are not binding and it cannot request internal documents from the company.

But if Mark Zuckerberg had believed that he could use the board to extricate himself from the most difficult editorial decisions, this ruling suggests that he is mistaken. The board’s existence is likely to make his job harder, not easier, in the months ahead.

[See also: How will the Republic of Facebook tackle its Donald Trump problem?]