Facebook: Trump stays suspended while we do our homework

Facebook may have hoped someone else would take the tricky – and politically-nightmarish – decision about whether Donald Trump should be permanently suspended, but with its Oversight Board refusing to play ball it's keeping the former US President on ice until it can figure the new rules out itself. The social media behemoth had referred Trump's suspension to its Oversight Board shortly after President Biden's inauguration, hoping for two main things.

Trump's "indefinite suspension" from Facebook came as the then-President was judged to be stoking the dangerous – and, as multiple investigations have shown, baseless – allegations of election fraud in January 2021. While an armed militia stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and threatened lawmakers there, Trump posted two inflammatory statements on Facebook.

The social network deleted them and, after the second, enacted a 24 hour ban on Trump. The following day, that ban was extended to last indefinitely. Facing accusations that it had been heavy-handed, Facebook referred the case to its independent Oversight Board.

What Zuckerberg's company wanted was two things. First, a decision on whether the Trump suspension was correct, given the situation in early January. Second, a recommendation on the appropriate duration of the penalty Facebook applied. Unfortunately for Facebook, it only got one of those questions answered.

In an announcement of its conclusions today, Facebook's Oversight Board upheld the Trump suspension. The then-President's comments were indeed inflammatory, and "severely violated Facebook's Community Standards and Instagram's Community Guidelines," the Board found. Trump also "created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible" through his maintaining of "an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action."

At the same time, however, it described the "indefinite" suspension as "not appropriate" by Facebook, and declined to give a recommendation on just how long would be appropriate. Pointing to Facebook's current content policies, the Board highlighted that the existing penalties only include the removal of posts that violate the rules, a suspension for a defined period of time, or a permanent ban. A suspension without an explicit time limit was outside of those options.

Writing today, Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook, acknowledged the conclusions. After welcoming the validation of the initial decision to suspend Trump, he concedes that further suspension responsibilities are back in Facebook's court.

"However, while the board has not required Facebook to immediately restore Mr. Trump's accounts, it has not specified the appropriate duration of the penalty," Clegg writes. "Instead, the board criticized the open-ended nature of the suspension, calling it an "indeterminate and standardless penalty," and insisted we review our response. We will now consider the board's decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump's accounts remain suspended."

It's not just an awkward decision likely to be unpopular with a segment of the US population regardless of which way Facebook leans. Lawmakers from both political parties have voiced concern with just how powerful Facebook is, and the outsized role it plays in spreading information and disinformation, particularly during election season. That has come with calls from both sides of the aisle to curtail just how much power Facebook wields.

In seeking to push the decision on the Trump ban to the Oversight Board – which Facebook has positioned as independent – the social networking giant could've distanced itself a little from the political fallout. That, in turn, may have helped stave off more aggressive regulatory controls from being applied, which could have an impact on Facebook's bottom line.

Instead, the Oversight Board declined to give Facebook such an easy-out. Now, it has six months to think further on the rules it applies, before giving a decision of its own on the fate of Trump's account. It'll also, Clegg says, be giving thought to broader policy changes should future situations of this nature arise.

"The board also made a number of recommendations on how we should improve our policies," Clegg highlighted. "While these recommendations are not binding, we actively sought the board's views on our policies around political figures and will carefully review its recommendations."

Among the changes the Oversight Board suggested, one was that Facebook form a specialized team familiar with linguistic and political context of posts with political speech from highly-influential users. In a nod to the furore of online discourse right now, it added that such a team "should be insulated from political and economic interference, as well as undue influence."