By Jeff Horwitz 

Facebook Inc. was justified in suspending then-President Donald Trump, the company's independent oversight board ruled Wednesday, but must better explain if or why he should be permanently locked out of the platform.

The Oversight Board gave Facebook six months to determine whether Mr. Trump should be permanently banned, and put the company on the line to more clearly explain how it moderates the statements of prominent individuals and develops penalties when those users break its rules. It also sharply criticized the company for its failure to state clear rules and explain how it enforces them.

Facebook created the Oversight Board to independently rule on difficult issues, but Wednesday's decision essentially punted the ball back to the company, stating that it was up to the company, and not the board, to set policy for the social-media platform.

The board's ruling most immediately ratifies a choice approved by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in the wake of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot and could have far-reaching implications for how technology companies police political speech.

The board found "that, in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible," the opinion states. "At the time of Mr. Trump's posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions."

The ruling said the actions of Mr. Trump's followers threatened the constitutional process.

While leaving the door open to his return to Facebook and its popular photo-sharing app Instagram, the ruling for now prevents Mr. Trump from regaining the social-media megaphone that he wielded for years and that he has lacked since the industry's major players banned him earlier this year.

The board also issued a scathing review of Facebook's process for making that decision. It cited Facebook's failure to state how and if it would determine whether the ban was permanent, and criticized the company's cooperation with the board's review.

"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," the board said in its decision. "In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities."

In a statement, Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, said the company would "consider the board's decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate."

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Trump criticized the decision as a "total disgrace" and said social-media companies must pay a political price for their actions against him.

The board sidestepped taking a position on whether political favoritism played a role in Facebook's decision on how to handle Mr. Trump. In a conference call after the decision was announced, board Co-Chairman Michael McConnell said the possibility is a legitimate concern.

"When you do not have clarity, consistency and transparency, there's no way to know," said Mr. McConnell, a Stanford University law professor. "This is not the only case in which Facebook has engaged in ad hockery."

Mr. McConnell said the board would need to understand the logic behind a reconsidered decision before taking a position on whether Mr. Trump's permanent ban or restoration would be appropriate.

"It's quite possible that that decision will itself contain defects," he said. "We are not prejudging the outcome of that proceeding."

Reaction to the decision split almost completely down partisan lines, with Republicans saying it fueled their desire to rein in the technology industry's power and Democrats saying Mr. Trump shouldn't be allowed back on social media under any circumstance.

In addition to the direct ruling, the board issued seven recommendations for Facebook for handling high-profile content during crises in the future. Chief among them: Explaining what its processes for such decisions are.

"They cannot invent new, unwritten rules when it suits them," said Co-Chairman Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Danish prime minister.

While Mr. Trump isn't known to be an avid Facebook user personally, as he was with Twitter, his staff regularly cross-posted his tweets there and used it to reach his more than 35 million followers on the platform.

The Facebook decision was made by five members of the current 20-person Oversight Board, a Facebook-endowed body created to adjudicate the company's handling of contentious content and advise on its moderation practices.

Facebook joined Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube, Twitter Inc. and other social-media platforms in removing then-president Trump after accusing him of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The riot, which left five people dead, followed a speech by Mr. Trump alleging that November's election had been stolen from him and calling on his supporters to take their grievances to Congress.

Mr. Trump has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyers during Mr. Trump's second impeachment trial called it "patently absurd" to suggest that he incited violence.

Facebook took down the president's account after determining that two of his posts from Jan. 6 violated its prohibition of praise for dangerous individuals and organizations. In those posts, Mr. Trump called for peace but said the rioters' rage was justified.

The major social-media platforms all took action against the president's posts that afternoon, then formalized more lasting suspensions in the following days. Facebook announced its ban in a post by Mr. Zuckerberg.

"We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in a Jan. 7 post, arguing that Mr. Trump was seeking to use the platform to disrupt the peaceful transition of power.

The board members split on standards for Mr. Trump's possible return.

A minority of the board wanted to see Facebook require users such as Mr. Trump to "recognize their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future" before their accounts are eligible for restoration.

The refusal to decide how Mr. Trump's account should be handled reflects an effort by the board to focus on accountability over a specific outcome, said Kate Klonick, an assistant professor of law at St. John's University who closely followed the board's formation. She cited the board's criticism of Facebook for failing to provide complete answers to questions about how it makes decisions involving powerful public figures.

"Facebook spent $130 million getting all these experts together and the company wouldn't even show them how their process worked," she said. "Now the board can publicly call them out."

Facebook's reliance on an outside board to vet its decision-making nonetheless sets the company apart from its peers. Twitter has since declared its ban of Mr. Trump to be permanent, while YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has said the platform will allow his return when it is "safe" to do so.

A YouTube spokesman declined to say who would make the decision about Mr. Trump's suspension, or when it would be made.

--Alexandra Bruell and Suzanne Vranica contributed to this article.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 05, 2021 15:42 ET (19:42 GMT)

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