Facebook was justified in its decision to suspend then-President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the company's Oversight Board said on Wednesday.
That means the company does not have to reinstate Trump's access to Facebook and Instagram immediately. But the panel said the company was wrong to impose an indefinite ban and said Facebook has six months to either restore Trump's account, make his suspension permanent, or suspend him for a specific period of time.
Facebook indefinitely suspended Trump's accounts in January after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, saying he used his account to "incite violent insurrection." Other social networks also kicked off the then-president, with Twitter going as far as banning Trump for good.
"At the time of Mr. Trump's posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions," the Oversight Board wrote in the announcement of its decision. "Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump's accounts."
However, it said Facebook was attempting to "avoid its responsibilities" by imposing an indefinite suspension — which the board slammed as "a vague, standardless penalty" — and then asking the board to make the final call.
"The Board declines Facebook's request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty," the decision said.
"We're not here for Facebook just to lob politically controversial hot potatoes at us for us to decide," board co-chair Michael McConnell, a Stanford law professor, told NPR.
Facebook, following the ruling, will now "determine an action that is clear and proportionate," Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg said in a statement. Until then, he said, Trump's accounts will remain suspended.
In a statement, Trump said Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google, had taken away his free speech. He said their actions were "a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country."
"These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price," he said.
The decision is the most high-profile and high-stakes case the panel, made up of outside experts, has weighed in its short existence. Stripping Trump of the ability to reach his 35 million Facebook followers and 24 million Instagram followers has stoked criticism that the tech company is biased against conservatives — a claim many on the right have made for years without evidence.
Even those who wanted to see Trump permanently banned cast doubt on the Oversight Board's legitimacy after learning of its decision.
"What people need to understand now is that the Oversight Board, which has still left the door open on this issue, is not the cure for what ails us on social media," said Jim Steyer of the nonprofit Common Sense, who has been a vocal critic of Facebook, in a statement.
The only way to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media, he said, "is independent, democratically accountable oversight of [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook."
Zuckerberg has long said the company should not be the arbiter of truth and has argued for a hands-off approach to political speech in particular, saying it's already highly scrutinized.
Yet on Wednesday, the Oversight Board suggested political leaders should not be treated differently than others with great influence online. It urged Facebook to be more transparent about how it applies its rules to "influential users," among other recommendations.
"Considerations of newsworthiness should not take priority when urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm," it wrote.
The company's policies and lack of transparency have led to widespread confusion and contributed to the suspicions of bias, board co-chair McConnell said at a press conference shortly after the decision.
"When you do not have clarity, consistency and transparency, there's no way to know," he said. "And much of the reason for demanding consistency and transparency is so that this can be revealed."
While the board's policy recommendations are not binding, Clegg said the company would carefully review them.
Tech companies' power over speech hotly debated
The social networks' moves to ban Trump in the wake of Jan. 6 immediately caused an uproar and added fuel to a raging debate over whether tech companies should determine who gets a voice online.
Republican politicians and right-wing commentators said it was evidence of Silicon Valley's alleged anti-conservative bias. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she found Twitter's ban "problematic" because she believes "the right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance."
But others say Facebook's ban was overdue. They argued that the company had given Trump too much leeway to break its rules because of its lenient stance on political speech and posts it deemed "newsworthy" and therefore kept up, even if they violated Facebook's policies.
Zuckerberg said at the time of the suspension in January that he believed the risk of allowing Trump to keep using the platform was "simply too great." When Facebook referred the decision to the Oversight Board several weeks later, the company said it believed the move "was necessary and right," given the "extraordinary circumstances."
The board says it received 9,666 comments on Trump's suspension. Many researchers and civil rights groups said Facebook was right to ban Trump because of his efforts to undermine the election and encourage violence. A submission from Republican lawmakers accused Facebook of bias against conservatives.
The board also received a "user statement" on behalf of Trump as part of its deliberations.
The former president has teased that he may not return to any of the major platforms and says he's considering launching his own social media network. On Tuesday, Trump added a new page on his website with a feed of messages — effectively, a blog. There's no ability for other people to comment or reply, but there are buttons to share the posts to Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook created the Oversight Board to review the hardest calls it makes about what content it does and does not allow users to post. The board began accepting cases in October. It is designed to review a small number of cases each year, and Facebook has agreed to abide by its decisions. The panel can also make recommendations about the company's policies.
The panel, which is funded by Facebook through a $130 million independent trust, is currently made up of 20 experts from around the world, including specialists in law and human rights, a Nobel Peace laureate from Yemen, the vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, the former prime minister of Denmark and several journalists.
Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Former President Donald Trump will remain off of the world's largest social network, at least for now. Facebook's oversight board has upheld the ban that the company put in place after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. At the time, Facebook had said that Trump was using its platform to, quote, "incite violent insurrection." But even as the oversight board agreed with that, it said Facebook was wrong to impose an indefinite suspension and must either reinstate Trump or ban him permanently.
All right, so joining us now is NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. And before we begin, we should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.
Hey to both of you.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: So, Shannon, let's start with you. Before we even get into this decision, can you just talk about what is Facebook's oversight board? Like, who's on it? What are they meant to do?
BOND: Right. So it's currently 20 people on this panel. This is an advisory board. It was created and funded by Facebook. And it's made up of human rights experts, lawyers, journalists. There's even an ex-prime minister. And the idea is that they give advice, and they review the toughest decisions that Facebook makes about what people can and can't post, such as this decision about banning Donald Trump.
CHANG: OK. So tell us about this decision that they reached today about Trump.
BOND: Right. So the board said that when Facebook made this very controversial choice to suspend Trump indefinitely from Facebook and Instagram after January 6, the suspension was justified. It said, you know, Trump indeed broke Facebook's rules. He praised the rioters at the Capitol. and that just goes against Facebook's rules about potentially inciting violence.
But the board took issue with the penalty that Facebook gave Trump - this indefinite suspension, which, you know, Facebook asked the board to sort of weigh in. You know, should we keep it going or should we let him back on? And the board said, no, no, no. Facebook, that is your job. So here's what Michael McConnell, a law professor at Stanford, who is a co-chair of the board, here's what he told me today.
MICHAEL MCCONNELL: You know, we are not here for Facebook just to, you know, lob, you know, politically controversial hot potatoes to us for us to decide. We are an oversight board.
BOND: So the board is saying, you know, Facebook, you can't punt this decision to us. It's punted it back to Facebook.
BOND: It's given the company six months to decide will it allow Trump back or will it ban him permanently?
CHANG: OK. And how has Facebook, the company, responded to this decision?
BOND: Well, just to be clear, this board doesn't have any legal or enforcement authority, but Facebook has agreed to be bound by its rulings on these decisions. So it says it's going to review what it did in this case with Trump and come back with a, quote, "clear and proportionate" action on his account.
CHANG: OK. Well Domenico, has there been any response yet from former President Trump?
MONTANARO: There has. And he hasn't responded to the specifics of what the oversight board did or said or what Facebook said in response. But, you know, Trump remains banned on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and he called the stances of those companies a, quote, "total disgrace and an embarrassment to the (ph) country." He also promised a degree of retribution. He threatened that they must pay a political price. You know, and the fact is, you know, he said social media companies, not just Facebook, are corrupt and disgraceful. And there's certainly not an effort on his part to tone down any of the rhetoric that got him suspended from Facebook in the first place.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, how big of a deal is this for Trump, politically speaking - I mean, at least for now - to be off of Facebook and to be off of Instagram?
MONTANARO: It's a big deal. You know, some people look at Twitter and they think that because Trump has been off of Twitter, that that's even bigger. And that's a big piece of it because, you know, he's permanently banned from Twitter. And he - that was a key way for him to get his message out and to control the news narrative. But Facebook was much more important for campaigning, for the campaign infrastructure, for fundraising, for targeting voters.
You know, one strategist I talked to this week said that he viewed this upcoming Facebook decision as make or break for Trump's political future. You know, he has the strongest fundraising list of any of the potential Republican candidates. So much of how Trump was able to raise small-dollar donations was through Facebook. His campaign was always able to use Facebook to microtarget swing voters and did it in unprecedented ways. That's why, you know, Brad Parscale, who was his former campaign manager and digital director in 2016, said Facebook was, quote, "the highway" that Trump drove his car on to win in 2016. And operatives say that without Facebook, it's going to be tough for his campaign to do that if he wants to run in 2024 again.
CHANG: So interesting. Well Shannon, I mean, beyond this situation with the former president, what are the implications of this decision for Facebook in the larger sense?
BOND: Yeah. Well, the board came down pretty hard on Facebook and particularly what CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said about, you know, taking a very hands-off approach to political speech. You know, he says it's already highly scrutinized. Facebook, you know, in some cases doesn't necessarily penalize high-profile users, politicians because if what they say is considered newsworthy. And the board said Facebook should not be treating politicians differently than other users.
And here, it really has zeroed in on something that many critics say about Facebook. Too often, it feels like this company is making up the rules as it goes along. And that makes it hard for users to understand what's happening. It's also fueled accusations that the company is politically biased. That's something we've heard from Republicans, and I imagine we're going to keep hearing.
CHANG: Domenico, back to you. I mean, Trump's team has said that they are aiming to create their own social media platform. What would that even be? And, like, where does that effort stand right now?
MONTANARO: Well, it hasn't happened yet. You know, yesterday they launched kind of a blog-like feature on their site where you can't even comment and - you know, as a place for him to kind of get out some of his message. But that is nothing compared to what he was able to do with something like Facebook. His team is promising that they're going to, you know, still launch this social media platform. But how much of an impact that could actually have when you've got a kind of giant like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube keeping him off? We're going to have to wait and see.
CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro and Shannon Bond.
Thanks to both of you.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
BOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.