Decoding the Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump Ban Decision

The White House’s previous occupant is still evicted from the world’s biggest social media platform, Facebook’s oversight board ruled in a decision posted Wednesday.

Suspended for stirring up supporters in a failed bid to block Joe Biden’s presidential certification on Jan. 6, former President Donald Trump was locked out of both Facebook and Instagram as the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol came to light. YouTube temporarily froze him out as well, pending such time as the “risk of violence” diminishes, while Twitter banished him for good “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the company said.

But unlike Twitter’s expulsion, Facebook blocked him “indefinitely” instead of permanently banning him, instead punting the matter to its nascent oversight board.

The fairly new body, a panel of independent experts who have only been ruling on Facebook’s content moderation decisions since October, both validated the company’s move as “appropriate” and criticized its penalty for being too vague.

“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on Jan. 6 and extending that suspension on Jan. 7,” it wrote. “[But] it is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.…In applying a vague, standard-less penalty and then referring this case to the board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities.”

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One might think that the board would follow up with a more decisive penalty. One would be wrong.

Instead, it listed the ways Facebook would typically address violations of its policy — including removing the offending content, suspending the account for a specific time period or permanently banning it — then gave the company a deadline to take action.

“The board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform,” it continued. “Facebook must complete its review of this matter within six months of the date of this decision.”

In other words, the board punted the matter back to the company’s executives. And there’s no clear indication that they want to make this decision, leaving Trump’s Facebook status up in the air.

He’s not waiting around to learn his Facebook fate. On Tuesday, one day before the board’s announcement, the former president announced his own online platform, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” — which, in the true sense, is not actually a social media platform. It’s more like a short, quippy blog with comments turned off, allowing the former president to sound off on whatever musings cross his mind, minus any potential blowback.

Not that he isn’t upset with his social media exile. On Wednesday, Trump blasted Facebook, Twitter and Google, calling their actions “a total disgrace and an embarrassment.” Notably, he didn’t use his new platform to distribute the screed, but used email instead.

Apart from whatever entertainment value — or outrage fodder — the public derives from the situation, there are real-world implications to consider. If social media platforms truly are the “digital equivalent of a town square,” as Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg once called his platform, then scenarios like this matter beyond the scope of any one celebrity or politician’s posts.

It means that the issue of banning world leaders or other prominent figures from these public spaces is in the hands of tech giants that have no desire to take on such weighty decisions. Neither, seemingly, does its oversight board.

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