Many conservatives have dismissed the Facebook Oversight Board upholding former President Donald Trump’s suspension as predictable. It was. I wasn’t surprised. Facebook punted the decision to them and they punted it right back.
That said, there were some statements within their decision where perhaps find a silver lining.
While they uplifted the suspension, saying he violated Facebook and Instagram’s community guidelines highlighting specific posts, they took Facebook to task about the suspension being indefinite.
“It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored,” they wrote. “In applying this penalty, Facebook did not follow a clear, published procedure. ‘Indefinite’ suspensions are not described in the company’s content policies. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.”
This is important because one of my chief complaints is Facebook’s inconsistency in applying their standards and how they seem to shift. The Oversight Board calls them out for not following their guidelines. They were making policy on the fly.
They gave Facebook a timeline.
“Within six months of this decision, Facebook must reexamine the arbitrary penalty it imposed on January 7 and decide the appropriate penalty. This 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, which must, in turn, be clear, necessary and proportionate,” they wrote.
Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook permanently disables his account. The Oversight Board left the door open for that if it is “consistent” with their rules.
They also state that Facebook must follow its rules if it decides to restore Trump’s accounts.
The Oversight Board also called for more transparency when Facebook takes “account-level sanctions” against an influential user.
“Facebook should publicly explain the rules that it uses when it imposes account-level sanctions against influential users. These rules should ensure that when Facebook imposes a time-limited suspension on the account of an influential user to reduce the risk of significant harm, it will assess whether the risk has receded before the suspension ends. If Facebook identifies that the user poses a serious risk of inciting imminent violence, discrimination or other lawless action at that time, another time-bound suspension should be imposed when such measures are necessary to protect public safety and proportionate to the risk,” they wrote.
They specifically addressed heads of state and other government officials.
“The Board noted that heads of state and other high officials of government can have a greater power to cause harm than other people. If a head of state or high government official has repeatedly posted messages that pose a risk of harm under international human rights norms, Facebook should suspend the account for a period 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 Oversight Board wrote.
Later in the report, the implications of taking action against a politician.
“Facebook’s decision to suspend Mr. Trump’s Facebook page and Instagram account has freedom of expression implications not only for Mr. Trump but also for the rights of people to hear from political leaders, whether they support them or not. Although political figures do not have a greater right to freedom of expression than other people, restricting their speech can harm the rights of other people to be informed and participate in political affairs,” they wrote.
There are a couple of policy recommendations that I wanted to highlight:
First, the Oversight Board said Facebook should “(e)xplain its strikes and penalties process for restricting profiles, pages, groups, and accounts in Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines.”
That would be helpful because we’ve all heard of accounts and pages being suspended with little to no idea of why. It’s hard to course correct when you don’t know what standard you are actually violating or why a particular post violated a standard.
Second, they suggested, “Provide users with accessible information on how many violations, strikes and penalties have been assessed against them, and the consequences that will follow future violations.”
So Facebook should give people a warning? What a novel concept.
The Oversight Board is not allowing Facebook to outsource its decision-making policy. They’re saying, “you own this.”
Ultimately, Facebook can’t hand this responsibility over. They’ve always had community standards, and I’m fine with that, but they need to be clear, and they need to be applied consistently.
They could make some meaningful changes, increase transparency, clarify its standards, and apply those standards consistently. If they do this, perhaps they can navigate through this.
I’m not going to hold my breath, though.