Facebook has finally put a potential end date on its suspension of Donald Trump, saying the former US president will not be allowed to post again until at least 2023.
Mr Trump was banned from publishing on Facebook and Instagram on January 7, the day after the Capitol riot, in which his supporters violently stormed Congress in an attempt to stop it from certifying his election defeat.
The social media giant said Mr Trump had used its platforms to spread misinformation and incite violence against the US government. He had spent the previous months falsely claiming the election was “stolen” from him through widespread fraud.
Facebook initially said Mr Trump would be banned until after Joe Biden’s inauguration, but later made his suspension indefinite.
Last month Facebook’s independent oversight board, set up to review contentious content moderation decisions, upheld the company’s decision to suspend Mr Trump – but said it had violated its own policies by making the ban indefinite.
The board instructed Facebook to reassess its penalty and replace it with “a proportionate response consistent with the rules”.
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Today, Facebook released its response to the oversight board’s ruling, which included new enforcement protocols for “exceptional cases” such as Mr Trump’s.
The new protocols lay out specific penalties for public figures who violate Facebook’s policies during times of civil unrest or violence, with potential suspensions ranging from one month to a maximum of two years.
Continuing violations after an initial suspension can lead to a permanent ban.
Facebook said Mr Trump would be subject to the maximum initial penalty of two years, meaning his accounts will remain locked until January 7, 2023. At that point, the company will assess whether reinstating him still poses a “risk to public safety”.
“Given the gravity of the circumstances that led to Mr Trump’s suspension, we believe his actions constituted a severe violation of our rules which merit the highest penalty available under the new enforcement protocols,” said Nick Clegg the former British deputy prime minister who now works as Facebook’s vice president of global affairs.
“We are suspending his accounts for two years, effective from the date of the initial suspension on January 7 this year.
“At the end of this period, we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded. We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest.
“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.
“When the suspension is eventually lifted, there will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr Trump commits further violations in the future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts.
“In establishing the two-year sanction for severe violations, we considered the need for it to be long enough to allow a safe period of time after the acts of incitement, to be significant enough to be a deterrent to Mr Trump and others from committing such severe violations in the future, and to be proportionate to the gravity of the violation itself.”
Mr Clegg said Facebook “absolutely accepts” the oversight board’s criticism that it didn’t have adequate enforcement protocols in place for public figures before now.
“Now that we have them, we hope and expect they will only be applicable in the rarest circumstances,” he said.
“We know that any penalty we apply, or choose not to apply, will be controversial. There are many people who believe it was not appropriate for a private company like Facebook to suspend an outgoing president from its platform, and many others who believe Mr Trump should have been immediately banned for life.
“Our job is to make a decision in as proportionate, fair and transparent a way as possible.”
Mr Trump responded to Facebook’s decision in a brief statement.
“Facebook’s ruling is an insult to the record-setting 75 million people, plus many others, who voted for us in the 2020 Rigged Presidential Election,” he said.
“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!”
Mr Trump’s popular vote total in 2020, 74.2 million, was the second-highest in US history behind Mr Biden’s 81.2 million. The election was not rigged.
Facebook ‘can’t make up the rules as it goes’
Facebook created the oversight board last year, tasking it with reviewing controversial moderation decisions. While it’s funded by the company, it is supposed to be independent. The board has 20 members, who range from academics to journalists and politicians.
In its judgment last month, it found Facebook violated its own rules by imposing an “arbitrary” penalty on Mr Trump, one that wasn’t laid out in the company’s content moderation policies.
“Facebook cannot make up the rules as it goes, and anyone concerned about its power should be concerned about allowing this. Having clear rules that apply to all users is essential for ensuring the company treats users fairly,” the board said.
“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.”
It gave Facebook six months to complete the review.
“The penalty must be based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm. It must also be consistent with Facebook’s rules for severe violations,” said the board.
“If Facebook decides to restore Mr Trump’s accounts, the company should apply its rules to that decision, including any changes made in response to the board’s policy recommendations. In this scenario, Facebook must address any further violations promptly and in accordance with its established content policies.”
That criticism aside, the board said Facebook was justified in its decision to block Mr Trump from posting after the Capitol riot.
In reviewing Mr Trump’s suspension, it focused on two posts from January 6. In the first, a video message, the then-president directly addressed his supporters.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it,” Mr Trump told them.
“This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special.
“You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.”
The second post, a written message, was sent about two hours later, as law enforcement was securing the Capitol.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love in peace. Remember this day forever!” said Mr Trump.
The board found that these posts “severely violated” Facebook’s community standards, and some of Mr Trump’s language violated the platform’s rules that prohibit “praise or support of people engaged in violence”.
More generally, it concluded that “in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action”, the former president “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible”.
“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the board said.