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Donald Trump could be allowed to return to Facebook today - here's what you need to know

The Facebook Oversight Board will rule on Trump’s ongoing ban this afternoon.
May 5th 2021, 6:10 AM 11,292 0

FACEBOOK’S INDEPENDENT OVERSIGHT committee will issue its final ruling today on whether to permanently ban Donald Trump from the social network.

Trump was blocked from posting on Facebook in January over comments which were deemed to have encouraged rioters who took over the US Capitol on 6 January.

In the wake of the ban, Facebook asked its Oversight Board (known informally as the tech giant’s “supreme court”), which has a final say on what is allowed to remain on the platform, to review the former president’s removal from its platform.

The ban followed years of concerns that Trump utilised social media to spread misinformation and incite hatred against certain groups or nations, with his Facebook page frequently in the top 10 most shared posts on the platform.

But although scholars and civil rights advocates urged Facebook to permanently ban Trump from the platform, others have argued that ‘deplatforming’ him would show political bias and inhibit free speech.

Whatever way it goes, today’s decision will likely see Facebook criticised by one side in the debate over Trump’s continued absence from the platform.

It may also prove difficult for a company which claims to be taking a low tolerance approach to misinformation while also valuing freedom of expression.

Why was Trump suspended?

On 7 January, the night after the Capitol riots in Washington DC, Facebook banned Trump from posting on Facebook for 24 hours – becoming the second social media firm, after Twitter, to block the president from doing so.

The decision followed a long period of Facebook allowing Trump’s posts to remain online, despite violating its policies, because his comments were seen as newsworthy.

Explaining the initial ban, a spokesperson for the social media firm cited two policy violations that were registered against Trump’s page.

In particular, Facebook pointed to a post with a video in which Trump continued to make unsubstantiated claims that Joe Biden’s election win last November was fraudulent and which implied that the actions of protesters at the Capitol in January were justified.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg subsequently said that the post had sought “to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to [Trump's elected successor]”.

He later announced that the ban would last longer than the initial 24-hour period and continue “until the peaceful transition of power” from Trump to Biden was complete on 20 January.

capitol-hill-maga-riot-june-6-2021 Rioters on Capitol Hill in January Source: Douglas Christian/PA

But a day after the inauguration, Facebook revealed that a decision on Trump’s ban would go to its oversight committee to review whether it would be made permanent within 90 days.

Who are the Facebook Oversight Board?

The Oversight Board is a committee which was created by the tech giant last year amid concerns about misinformation and potential manipulation in the US election.

According to its website, the board’s stated goal is “ensuring respect for free expression, through independent judgement”.

“It [has become] increasingly clear to the Facebook company that it shouldn’t be making so many decisions about speech and online safety on its own,” the board’s site continues.

“The Oversight Board was created to help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up and why.”

It comprises academics, digital rights advocates and politicians from around the world: former Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt is a member, as is ex-Guardian editor (and former Irish Future of Journalism Commission member) Alan Rusbridger.

The board is also overseen by six trustees, who have financial responsibility over its activities. According to the Washington Post, the board is funded by a $130 million trust created by Facebook.

How does the board make decisions?

Firstly, a ‘content decision’ has to be made by Facebook. For example, a post (or page) has to be taken down from Facebook or Instagram – or left up despite several complaints that it breaches the company’s terms.

Then a user has to ask Facebook to review that initial decision. And if a person is unhappy with that second decision, they can appeal it to the Oversight Board.

As part of that process, the board evaluates submissions from Facebook/Instagram users and considers if they are relevant enough to be reviewed in-depth.

In Trump’s case, the public comment period ended in February and saw more than 9,000 submissions made.

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The board will also decide if a case is eligible for review. That could include factors such as whether a case is particularly “difficult, significant and globally relevant” – as Trump’s certainly appears to be.

Once a case has been selected, a panel made up of the board’s members will be assigned to carry out the review and be given information to help them.

That information will include submissions by the person who submitted the appeal, as well as contextual information from Facebook itself.

The panel then deliberates and makes a decision based on all the information that has been provided, as well as insight from any experts who have been called upon to provide further context.

The board will then produce a written explanation of its decision, which will be available for the public to read on this website.

donald-trump Trump arrives at a campaign rally last year Source: PA

How has this process worked in the past?

The board has already made a few decisions, although none admittedly as high-profile as the one about Trump.

Since its formation, the group has ruled on nine cases. These include:

  • A decision by Facebook to remove a post on a Dutch page that was deemed to violate the rules around posting caricatures of black people in the form of blackface (which the board upheld).
  • A decision by Facebook to remove a video from a French page about “cures” for Covid-19 that the company deemed to be misinformation (which the board overturned).
  • A decision by Facebook to remove a post which used a quote incorrectly attributed to former Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (which the board overturned).

When can we expect a decision?

The board’s five-person panel said on Monday that the ruling can be expected at around 1pm Irish time today. A news conference will follow.

Contains reporting by Christine Bohan and © AFP 2021.

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Stephen McDermott

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