Oversight Board Directs Facebook to Make Final Decision on Trump in the Next Six Months

phone screen displays a Facebook logo with the official portrait of former President Donald Trump on the background Photo Source: Former President Donald Trump and a phone screen displaying the Facebook logo in Arlington, Va., file photo, May 4, 2021, (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images via ABC News)

Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the company’s decision to suspend then-President Donald J. Trump from the platform after his involvement in supporters storming the capitol on January 6, 2021. While the Board agreed with Facebook’s initial response, the Board criticized the company for “not following a clear published procedure” when indefinitely suspending Mr. Trump and gave Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, a six-month deadline to make a final, definitive decision on Mr. Trump’s future on the platform.

The case was referred to the Board on January 21st, a day after Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States and Mr. Trump ceased being head of the country. The Board received nearly 10,000 public comments regarding the case and was forced to extend its deliberation period.

Facebook initially justified the indefinite suspension of Mr. Trump’s account to the Board by stating he had used the platform to “incite violent insurrection” by motivating a mob of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Oversight Board agreed with Facebook’s decision by stating, “Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.”

While the Oversight Board agreed with Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump’s accounts, they also stated that Facebook was “avoid[ing] its responsibilities” by pushing the final decision to the Board and using an indefinite suspension, calling it a “standardless penalty.” Facebook’s past practices and procedures have been to permanently suspend any account or give a defined period for suspension. The Board found it “not permissible” for the company “to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”

Mr. Trump responded to the Board’s decision through his website, a feed set up similar to Twitter, calling the decision “a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country” and alluded to himself as still the President of the United States.

The Facebook Oversight Board is “an independent grievance mechanism” that was set up and funded by Facebook through a $130 million trust. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, developed the idea for the board to act as the company’s supreme court and deliberate the company’s decisions on allowing, banning, or censoring content on the platform.

The Board is currently made up of 20 experts selected by Facebook from around the world with experiences ranging from politics to human rights activist. Decisions made by the Board are binding on the company, unlike recommendations made by the Board, which are non-binding. However, Facebook must respond to all published recommendations.

The Oversight Board has the collective powers of requesting Facebook to provide information related to a case, interpret the Community Standards of the platforms, instruct Facebook to either allow or remove content, instruct Facebook to uphold or reverse a decision and issue explanations of the Board’s decisions. Mr. Zuckerberg has said that the decisions coming from the Board are binding; however, there is no body internal or external to the platform to ensure the decision is followed or enforced.

When a case is referred to the Board, five of the members are chosen to discuss and review the steps taken by the company. At least one of the members chosen to deliberate must be located in the home country of the case in question.

In Mr. Zuckerberg’s initial vision of the board, he justified its creation by stating “Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own.” However, the Board he created has no enforcement body nor any incentive to give decisive answers to the company. In its most recent conclusion on Mr. Trump, the Board pushed the decision back to Facebook to make a final ruling.

Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other large tech companies have been in the spotlight and hearings over the past year as Congress debates the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 gives social media platforms immunity from liability over the content that is posted by their users.

Democratic Senator from Minnesota and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Amy Klobuchar, believe Mr. Trump should be permanently banned from social media platforms saying, “he is the ultimate conveyor of misinformation, he’s a disinformer in chief.” She comments that Mr. Trump still refuses to admit defeat in the election. Ms. Klobuchar is not a stranger to criticizing what she sees as the unchecked power and influence of big tech companies like Facebook. Other liberals argue that platforms are not aggressive enough when combating misinformation and violence online, regardless of the creator.

Conservatives, like Republican Representative from Ohio, Jim Jordan, view social media platforms as biased toward liberal viewpoints and “out to get conservatives.” An August 2020 PEW Research Center survey found that 90 percent of Republicans surveyed believe that censorship on social media is based on political grounds.

Late last month, Florida passed a bill in the state legislature that would prevent social media companies from “de-platforming” users. In the coming months, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is likely to sign the bill which would require social media companies to publish their standards for censorship and fine a social media company as much as $250,000 per day for de-platforming a Florida candidate. During his administration, Mr. Trump officially moved his legal residence to Florida, which would make it illegal for Facebook to permanently ban him from the platform, should the bill pass.

Haley Larkin
Haley Larkin
Haley is a freelance writer and creator with a focus on law and politics. She has a Master’s from American University in International Relations and currently works in labor relations and collective bargaining rights.