Facebook has extended former President Donald Trump's suspension for two years and says it will only reinstate him "if the risk to public safety has receded."
Facebook says it is setting new rules for public figures in times of civil unrest and violence, "to be applied in exceptional cases such as this." Trump has received the maximum penalty under those rules, "given the gravity of the circumstances" leading to his suspension. Because the company took his Facebook and Instagram accounts down on Jan. 7, the two-year suspension will last until at least Jan. 7, 2023.
At that point, Facebook will consult experts and "evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest," said Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs, in a statement.
"If we determine that there is still a serious risk to public safety, we will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to re-evaluate until that risk has receded," Clegg said.
When Trump is allowed to return, he will be subject to "a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions" — up to a permanent ban — that will kick in if he continues to break Facebook's rules.
Trump and the left agree: This is a bad move
Facebook's decision "is an insult to the record-setting 75M people, plus many others, who voted for us," Trump said in an emailed statement, misstating the number of votes he received in the 2020 presidential election. (It was just over 74 million votes.) He also continued his baseless attacks on the legitimacy of the election.
"They shouldn't be allowed to get away with this censoring and silencing, and ultimately, we will win. Our Country can't take this abuse anymore!" he said.
He later followed up with a statement hinting he would run for the presidency again and directing ire at Facebook's CEO: "Next time I'm in the White House there will be no more dinners, at his request, with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. It will be all business!"
Facebook's decision was also derided by left-leaning civil rights and tech watchdog groups who hoped it would permanently ban Trump.
"This decision only goes to underline the enormous, unchecked power of Facebook and its repeated failure to police its platform," a coalition calling itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board said in a statement.
"Donald Trump and his allies used Facebook to incite an insurrection and attempted coup of the United States Government. The punishment: Back on Facebook just in time for Trump 2024, with no explanation at all why a two-year ban, or what the criteria is for determining his status when the ban expires."
The company's decision raises more questions than it answers, according to the group, whose name is a mocking reference to the panel of outside legal and human rights experts the company convened to review its most difficult content decisions.
Those unanswered questions include how Facebook will treat other controversial political leaders who have flouted its rules and whether the company would be reexamining the actions it's taken against other users prior to this policy shift.
What is newsworthy?
Nonetheless, the new rules being applied to Trump mark a sharp break with the hands-off approach to political speech that Facebook has taken for years.
The social network has largely exempted politicians from its policies on what speech is allowed on its platform, with Zuckerberg arguing that political speech is already highly scrutinized. That stance has fueled criticism from civil rights groups, Democratic lawmakers, political activists and even the company's own employees.
Now, Facebook is overhauling a key part of its approach and will no longer consider politicians' posts "newsworthy" by default. That means if politicians break the company's rules prohibiting harmful speech, they will face the same consequences as any other user.
"We will simply apply our newsworthiness balancing test in the same way to all content, measuring whether the public interest value of the content outweighs the potential risk of harm by leaving it up," Clegg said.
That's a reversal of how Facebook has treated politicians since 2019, when Clegg said the company believed political speech was "newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard."
However, Facebook is not eliminating the exemption entirely. It said if it decides a politician's post breaks the rules but is newsworthy, it will be left up on the site — but the company will disclose when it does so.
The company is also leaving another controversial policy in place: It will continue to exempt politicians' posts and paid ads from fact-checking. Critics say that gives political leaders around the world a free pass to lie and whip up partisan divisions.
The impact the changes will have on politicians depends on how aggressively Facebook applies them, said Paul Barrett, deputy director at NYU's Center for Business and Human Rights.
"It'll all depend on whether Facebook has the courage of its convictions and actually enforces the rules that it has clarified today," he said. "If it does move vigorously to enforce them, that'll really be a whole new world for public figures who are, generally speaking, quite used to using language in extreme and often reckless ways."
That could also escalate tensions that the company has long sought to avoid, Barrett said.
"Politicians, unlike some ordinary person, are going to absolutely turn any kind of adverse decision by Facebook into a big political issue," he said.
But, he said, the company has little choice. The 2020 campaign and the COVID-19 pandemic "have basically backed these platforms into acknowledging that they will have to look at the substance of what's on their sites to a much greater degree and make more judgments than they wanted to make in the past."
Answering the Oversight Board's criticism
The policy changes were announced Friday in response to recommendations from Facebook's Oversight Board.
Last month, the board upheld Facebook's decision to suspend Trump, finding he had broken its policies against praising violence, but said the company needed to set clear rules for high-profile users.
The board's criticisms of Facebook were scathing. It slammed the company, saying, "The same rules should apply to all users of the platform." It said Facebook should act more quickly when politicians, celebrities and other people with big audiences violate its policies, because their influence can cause outsize harm.
The board took particular aim at the "newsworthiness" exemption, put in place in 2016. It said the company should do a better job of explaining the policy and when it's applied to "influential users," including politicians.
Facebook said on Friday that it has applied this policy to Trump's account once: on an August 2019 video from a rally at which Trump singled out a member of the crowd.
In its response to the board's recommendations, Facebook said it would be more clear about how it enforces rules for all users. It's making public its system of "strikes" and penalties for accounts that break the rules and explaining how it reviews posts by high-profile "public figures."
It also laid out a new policy for how it will handle public figures' accounts "during civil unrest" — the rules it is applying to Trump.
Because those figures can have outsized impact, if they break the rules "in ways that incite or celebrate ongoing violent disorder or civil unrest," they face suspensions ranging from one month to two years, compared with the standard penalty of up to 30 days.
In addition, once they're allowed back on Facebook, these users will face "heightened penalties" including permanent bans.
Facebook said it was "committed to fully implementing" most of the board's recommendations.
But it did not commit to a suggestion that it conduct a review of its role in contributing to the false election fraud narrative that culminated in the events of Jan. 6, instead saying it is cooperating with law enforcement and is partnering with outside researchers to study the effect its platforms have on elections.
Nonetheless, the Oversight Board largely praised Facebook's announcement in a response posted to Twitter:
"The Board believes the steps Facebook has committed to today will contribute to greater clarity, consistency and transparency in the way the company moderates content, and promote public safety, defend human rights and respect freedom of expression."
Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Facebook has extended former President Donald Trump's suspension for at least two years, and it says they'll only reinstate him then if, quote, "the risk to public safety has receded." It's part of big changes the social media company is making to how it treats all politicians. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us. And I need to note Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. Hey, Shannon.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: OK, so as we noted, Trump was already suspended. Facebook suspended him right after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. So what exactly is new today?
BOND: Well, at the time, Facebook said Trump was kicked off indefinitely. It's now put a time frame on this penalty. So he can't return before January 2023. And this is in response to Facebook's Oversight Board, which is this group of outside experts that Facebook created to review its toughest calls. Facebook had asked the board to weigh in on the Trump case. And last month, the board said, OK, suspending Trump was the right move. But it said Facebook can't just indefinitely suspend someone. That kind of penalty needs clear rules, a clear time frame. We should also note Facebook was not the only platform to kick off Trump. Twitter banned him permanently after January 6.
KELLY: And do we know why this time frame? Is there something special about January 2023?
BOND: Well, also at the board's urging, Facebook has set these new rules for how it treats public figures in times of civil unrest and violence, for cases just like this one. And so it says under those new rules, the maximum suspension is two years and that what Trump did in stoking this violence was so serious, he deserves that maximum. To be clear, it hasn't explained why two years is the maximum. What it means is that once 2023 rolls around, Facebook will consider whether there's still a serious risk to public safety before letting Trump back. And if he does come back, he will face stricter penalties, including the possibility of a permanent ban if he keeps breaking Facebook's rules.
KELLY: What are we hearing in reaction to this from Trump?
BOND: He put out a statement describing Facebook's decision as an insult to the people who voted for him and continued his baseless attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. He then followed up with another statement, hinting he would run for the presidency again and taking direct aim at Facebook's CEO. He said, quote, "Next time I'm in the White House, there will be no more dinners, at his request, with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. It will be all business." But Trump is not the only person unhappy. Many critics of Facebook are also unhappy with this decision. Civil rights groups and others - they say Facebook - Trump should be permanently banned already. And they're worried that he's going to be back in time for the next presidential election in 2024.
KELLY: Shannon, just setting Trump aside for a second, we mentioned this Facebook move is part of changes to how they want to treat all politicians. What kind of differences are you watching for in how politicians use Facebook?
BOND: I think it's all going to come down to how aggressively Facebook actually enforces these new rules. I asked this of Paul Barrett, who's deputy director at NYU's Center for Business and Human Rights. Here's what he said.
PAUL BARRETT: It'll all depend on whether Facebook has the courage of its convictions. That'll really be a whole new world for public figures who, I think, are generally speaking quite used to using language in kind of extreme and often reckless ways.
BOND: And, you know, the reason they've done that is that, as we've reported, for years Facebook has given politicians lots of leeway in what they post. Zuckerberg has said political speech is already highly scrutinized. He doesn't want to be the arbiter of truth. So this is a big shift here. Facebook is now saying politicians - not just Trump but any political leader anywhere in the world - will be held mostly to the same rules as other users. And in some cases, these kind of figures - they should actually be held to a higher standard. That's a big change here.
KELLY: Thank you, Shannon.
BOND: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: NPR's Shannon Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.