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Facebook board upholds Trump ban for inciting Capitol riot

Quasi-independent Oversight Board votes in favor of continued suspension from platform but faults social media network for applying ‘a vague, standardless penalty’

US President Donald Trump speaks to crowd before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez, File)
US President Donald Trump speaks to crowd before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Former US president Donald Trump won’t return to Facebook — for now.

The social network’s quasi-independent Oversight Board voted to uphold his ban from the platform after his account was suspended four months ago for inciting violence that led to the deadly January 6 Capitol riot.

While upholding the suspension, the board faulted Facebook in a statement for the way it made the decision.

The board said the ongoing risk of serious violence justified Facebook’s suspension at the time, but said it “was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension.”

Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The board said Facebook was seeking to avoid its responsibilities by applying “a vague, standardless penalty” and then referring the case to the board to resolve.

“Indefinite penalties of this sort do not pass the international smell test,” oversight board co-chari Michael McConnell said in a conference call with reporters. “We are not cops, reigning over the realm of social media.”

After years of handling Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric with a light touch, Facebook and Instagram took the drastic step of silencing his accounts in January. In announcing the unprecedented move, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risk of allowing Trump to continue using the platform was too great.

“The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on January 7.

The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, January 7, 2021

The board agreed with Facebook that that two of Trump’s January 6 posts “severely violated” the content standards of both Facebook and Instagram.

“We love you. You’re very special,” he said to the rioters in the first post. In the second, he called them “great patriots” and told them to “remember this day forever.” Those violated Facebook’s rules against praising or supporting people engaged in violence, the board said.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Danish prime minister who sits on the board, said in the call that Facebook shirked its responsibility to enforce its own rules. “Facebook should either permanently disable Trump’s account or propose a suspension for a specific period of time,” she said.

The board said Facebook has six months to reexamine the “arbitrary penalty” it imposed on January 7 and decide on another penalty that reflects the “gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm.”

The Pro-Trump rally at the US Capitol, Washington DC on January 6, 2021 (Lloyd Wolf via JTA)

It didn’t say exactly how Facebook should do this, but offered a number of recommendations. One advised against drawing a firm distinction between political leaders and other influential users because anyone with a big audience can potentially cause serious risks of harm.

Thorning-Schmidt said considerations of newsworthiness should “never” take priority over the risk of harm.

The board also said Facebook should publicly explain the rules that it uses to sanction influential users, and emphasized the need for time-bound suspensions and clear rules on how they can be lifted.

The board said the new penalty must be “clear, necessary and proportionate” and consistent with Facebook’s rules for severe violations.

The board said if Facebook decides to restore Trump’s accounts, the company must be able to promptly address further violations.

A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The board, which has 20 members and will eventually grow to 40, did not reveal how it voted. It said a minority of members emphasized that Facebook should require users who seek reinstatement after being suspended to “recognize their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future.”

Trump has also been permanently banned from Twitter.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump participate in a rally in in Washington DC, January 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

A day before Oversight Board’s announcement, Trump unveiled a new blog on his personal website, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.” While the page includes a dramatic video claiming, “A BEACON OF FREEDOM ARISES” and hailing “A PLACE TO SPEAK FREELY AND SAFELY,” the page is little more than a display of Trump’s recent statements — available elsewhere on the website — that can be easily shared on Facebook and Twitter, where he is banned.

While Trump aides have spent months teasing his plans to launch his own social media platform, his spokesman Jason Miller said the blog was something separate.

“President Trump’s website is a great resource to find his latest statements and highlights from his first term in office, but this is not a new social media platform,” he tweeted. “We’ll have additional information coming on that front in the very near future.”

Barred from social media, Trump has embraced other platforms for getting his message out. He does frequent interviews with friendly news outlets and has emailed a flurry of statements to reporters through his official office and political group.

Trump has even said he prefers the statements to his old tweets, often describing them as more “elegant.”

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