For the moment, former President Donald Trump won't regain access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts, which the world's largest social network suspended in January after the deadly US Capitol Hill riot.
In its most high-profile case, a semi-independent oversight board set up by the company and tasked with reviewing Facebook's toughest content decisions upheld Facebook's decision to suspend Trump from the platform. But it told CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team to review the length of the suspension, which was imposed because of concerns that his online remarks could incite further violence after the rioting and violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
"It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension," the board said in its decision, released Wednesday. "The Board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform."
The board gave Facebook six months to complete its review and took a shot at the social network, accusing it of seeking to "avoid its responsibilities." The board said any punishment should be based on "the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm."
Facebook said in a blog post that it would review the decision and find a "clear and proportionate" action. Trump, 74, will remain suspended in the meantime.
In a statement posted on his, Trump lashed out at Facebook, as well as other social media companies.
"What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country," Trump wrote. "Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before."
He called the social media companies "corrupt" and said they would pay a "political price."
The board's decision was highly anticipated, with politicians, advocacy groups and others watching the case closely. The 20-member board, made up of an international set of experts on free expression, human rights and journalism, had to extend its deliberations because of the volume of more than 9,000 third-party comments it received. A document containing those comments is nearly 8,600 pages long.
The decision highlights the balance social networks try to strike between mitigating harm, such as potential violence, and encouraging free expression. It was seen as a test of the independence of the oversight board, which was formed and funded by Facebook but operates separately from the social network.
Moderating political speech
Facebook and other social networks have been under pressure for years to crack down on Trump's accounts for spreading misinformation, inciting violence and other rule violations. Though Facebook typically has a hands-off approach to political speech, politicians aren't exempted from its policies against inciting violence.
In one of its most controversial decisions, Facebook came under fire, including from its, for not removing a post from Trump in the aftermath of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man from Minnesota. In the post, Trump said "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," a phrase with racist origins that dates back to the civil rights era.
Other social media sites, including Snapchat and Google-owned YouTube, have also taken action against Trump. Twitter, the former president's favored way to communicate with his fans, barred him permanently. YouTube said in March that it will reverse its ban on the former president when "the risk of violence has decreased."
Trump has 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram.
Social media companies typically avoid censoring political speech but have also repeatedly faced allegations they're biased against conservatives, which they deny. Then came the Capitol Hill riots, which left five dead, including a Capitol police officer, and prompted Facebook to take the unprecedented step of booting Trump from its platform indefinitely out of concern his remarks could potentially provoke more violence.
Before the riot, Trump, who was still the US president at the time, told his supporters they needed to "fight like hell" and said "we're going to the Capitol." Facebook removed two posts from Trump that reiterated the baseless claims that the 2020 election results were fraudulent, though he also told his supporters to go home. Trump lost the election to Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden in what Trump administration officials described in November as the "most secure in American history."
Facebook said Trump's posts violated its rules against "dangerous individuals and organizations" before barring him from posting on Facebook and Instagram. The board agreed that Trump's posts ran afoul of the social media company's policies and also made recommendations about how Facebook should handle speech by influential leaders. If a high government official repeatedly posts messages that could undercut human rights, the social network should suspend the account for a time that is "sufficient" to protect against imminent harm.
"Suspension periods should be long enough to deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion," the board said.