Culture

Facebook's Oversight Board punts its Trump ban decision back to Zuckerberg

The Board upholds the Trump ban — and spends some time condemning Facebook's vague suspension terms.

Donald Trump, candidate for the Republican nomination for president, holds a rally in the Large Arena at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. Photo by Jeremy Drey 4/21/2016 (Photo By Jeremy Drey/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images/MediaNews Group/Getty Images

After months of debate, Facebook’s Oversight Board today announced that it will uphold Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump — but its decision to do so comes with some major caveats. Most notably, the Oversight Board condemns Facebook’s “indefinite” suspension and asks the company to revisit Trump’s suspension terms in the next six months.

“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the Board writes in its decision.

The letter, which went live at 9 a.m. ET today, includes a time-stamped summary of the events leading up to Trump’s ban, along with some commentary about how Trump’s posts “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.” The Oversight Board calls Facebook’s decision “justified.”

The ruling is pretty much what we expected, though it is somewhat disappointing that the Oversight Board’s first major ruling devotes so much of its time to the indefinite period of Trump’s suspension. And the Board’s conclusion — that Facebook should make the final call here — doesn’t give us much hope in the group’s ability to actually police Facebook’s decisions.

Thanks but we’ll let you guys take this one — The Oversight Board spends a fair amount of its first decision speaking to the minutia of Facebook’s ban — specifically the company’s decision to suspend Trump’s account for an indefinite period of time.

“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 listed,” the Board writes.

But the Board’s decision does not set definite terms; instead it throws the ball right back into Facebook’s court. The Board says Facebook must revisit its decision in the next six months with more definite terms.

But some precedent is set — Though at times its decision reads as vague, the Oversight Board is setting some very real precedent here for how future cases involving powerful figures will be handled. There’s meticulous justification here for silencing — at least temporarily — an influential figure, with the potential of real-world harm as its basis.

The Board’s decision is also notable in its push for Facebook to better define its strategy for similar situations moving forward. It acknowledges that, in similar future cases, Facebook really needs to be better prepared.

The Board also diverges into related scandal content by suggesting that Facebook undergo a “comprehensive review” of the site’s contributions to the overarching narrative of election fraud that eventually led to the January 6 Capitol riot. This review should be an “open reflection of the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused,” the Board writes.

It’s something of a letdown to see the Oversight Board kick this decision back to Facebook once again, but we can’t say we’re all that surprised: we’ve known from the start that the Board would have limited power.