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Trump ban decision shows Facebook can't use oversight board as scapegoat

The social network now has to decide how long Trump remains suspended from the platform.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
Queenie Wong
3 min read

Facebook is reviewing its decision to indefinitely suspend former US President Donald Trump from its platform.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Facebook 's oversight board demonstrated on Wednesday that it wouldn't do the social network's dirty work.  

In January, former US President Donald Trump lost much of his digital reach when Facebook indefinitely booted him from the social network and Instagram, its photo service. Like other social networks, Facebook raised concerns that Trump's online remarks could provoke more violence in the wake of the deadly Capitol Hill riot that month. CEO  Mark Zuckerberg  announced the suspension in a post that called the risks of allowing Trump to to continue using the network "simply too great."

The decision was controversial, and the social media giant asked the oversight board tasked with reviewing its toughest content decisions to uphold or overturn Trump's suspension. The highly watched decision put the board in a tricky spot, placing the members at the center of a firestorm about how social networks should handle political speech. 

On Wednesday, the oversight board came to a decision that sent Zuckerberg and his team a strong message. It agreed with the suspension of Trump. But it found Facebook had issued a punishment that the social network's own rules don't describe and hadn't adequately explained its reasoning for the penalty. The board told Facebook that it'll be up to the social network, and not the board, to decide the length of Trump's suspension. 

"In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities," the board said in its decision. "The Board declines Facebook's request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty."

The pushback from the oversight board, which dodged some of the heat that could surely come with the high-profile and controversial decision, is evidence that it won't let Facebook use it as a scapegoat. The board pointed out flaws in Facebook's rules, noting that "indefinite" suspensions aren't described in its content rules. In the past, the social network has taken down content that violates its rules, imposed suspensions for a certain amount of time or permanently taken down an account or page. 

In the days leading up to the decision, discussion centered on whether Facebook was using the board to do the social network's "dirty work for them so they can absolve themselves of responsibility," said Jen Golbeck, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park who focuses on social media. 

Facebook has six months to review the Trump ban from the platform , a decision that'll also have an impact on other political leaders around the globe. "We will now consider the board's decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate," Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a blog post. "In the meantime, Mr. Trump's accounts remain suspended."

Trump in a statement criticized Facebook, as well as Google and Twitter, as "corrupt." The companies must "pay a political price," Trump wrote. (The companies have repeatedly denied allegations of political bias against conservatives.)

Of course, the decision also underscored the board's limited power. It can't rewrite or change Facebook's policies. It can only make recommendations, which the social network then decides what to do with. 

"It certainly wasn't an exercise of power," Golbeck said, referring to the board's decision. "It remains to be seen if they will have any." 

Meanwhile, Facebook is facing calls for regulation from both political parties, including an effort to change a law known as Section 230. The law shields online platforms from liability for content posted by users. 

"Every day, Facebook is amplifying and promoting disinformation and misinformation, and the structure and rules governing its oversight board generally seem to ignore this disturbing reality. It's clear that real accountability will only come with legislative action," US Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, tweeted Wednesday.

The same day, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise from Louisiana criticized Facebook's ban of Trump.

"Big Tech has a choice: Have the same standards for ALL--or--we look at antitrust laws to limit their monopolistic power," Scalise tweeted. "If they can do this to a president, imagine what they can do to you." 

Advocacy groups also weighed in on the decision. A group of prominent critics that calls itself "the real Facebook oversight board" added in a blog post that the social network's "attempt to divert attention from its fundamental failure to take responsibility for what's on its own platform has itself failed."