By Jeff Horwitz 

Facebook Inc.'s independent oversight board ruled Wednesday that the company was justified in suspending then-President Donald Trump but added that it must decide in the coming months whether he is permanently locked out of Facebook and Instagram.

The board determined that two posts from Mr. Trump on Jan. 6 following the attack on the U.S. Capitol "severely violated" the platforms' community standards, but that it wasn't appropriate for the company to assess an indefinite suspension with no criteria for when the account will be restored. It called for Facebook to review the decision and make a new determination about the status of Mr. Trump's accounts within the next six months.

Facebook was among social-media companies that suspended his accounts following the Capitol attack by a pro-Trump mob, with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg saying the suspension was important to reduce the risk of violence through the inauguration of President Biden. The company later referred the suspension to the oversight board as the company grappled with how to treat one of its highest-profile users after his exit from public office.

Here is what the ruling means for the relatively new panel that is unique among social-media companies and why the decision will be closely scrutinized by users, politicians and other platforms.

Why did Facebook suspend Mr. Trump?

Facebook said it found that two posts by the former president violated the company's rules against praise and support for the riot at the Capitol. In a video posted to Facebook and an accompanying post, Mr. Trump reiterated unsubstantiated claims about election fraud and, while encouraging the rioters to go home peacefully, implied that their actions stemmed from justifiable anger.

Facebook ruled that content was prohibited, and Mr. Zuckerberg said Mr. Trump was seeking "to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden."

But questions remain about the timing and rationale of Mr. Zuckerberg's decision, with critics alleging the company was stifling free speech or that the former president was banned to appease the incoming Democratic administration.

In a statement after the Oversight Board's decision was released, 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."

What is the oversight board and why was it created?

Funded by Facebook through an endowment established in 2019, the oversight board is designed to help the company tackle its thorniest content-moderation issues and make policy recommendations.

The board operates like a Supreme Court for content; the company can refer cases or individual users can submit petitions for the board to consider. The board considers whether Facebook erred in removing content or accounts from its platforms or left intact content that should have been taken down under company rules. Facebook has pledged to abide by the panel's decisions.

The oversight board made its first rulings earlier this year and showed a willingness to overturn the company's past content-moderation decisions.

Who is on the board and how did they get there?

The board's 20-person roster has a lot of lawyers -- with human-rights advocates, former politicians and journalists as well. Facebook chose the initial members, who then took over the job of selecting their peers with an eye to geographic diversity. Facebook has said the panel could eventually have as many as 40 members.

How are board decisions made?

The board hears cases on a rotating basis, with five-judge panels ruling on whether Facebook correctly applied its own rules by removing -- or leaving up -- a particular piece of content. The names of which five members are adjudicating the ban on Mr. Trump are to remain secret, as is standard board procedure.

Once the five members reach a decision, a majority of the full board must vote to approve it. If a majority of the board were to disagree with the decision, the case would be sent back to another panel, starting the process again.

In the case of Mr. Trump, the board determined that it wasn't "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." It gave Facebook six months to determine whether Mr. Trump should be permanently banned, and it put the company on the line to more clearly articulate its rules for prominent individuals and develop penalties for violators.

Does Facebook have to accept the board's decision?

Yes. The oversight board has the final say on the individual pieces of content that it reviews, as well as the ability to offer broader recommendations and criticisms. Facebook previously said it would abide by the board's content decisions. However, the company has discretion on whether to implement any policy recommendations.

Meanwhile, Facebook over the past few weeks prepared Madison Avenue for the long-anticipated ruling. The company reached out to advertising agencies in calls and emails to describe the board's process and emphasized that its management team had no sway over the board's decision, ad executives said.

How did other social-media platforms handle Mr. Trump?

Social-media platforms including Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube, Twitter Inc. and Facebook suspended Mr. Trump's accounts in the wake of the riot.

Twitter, which Mr. Trump frequently used throughout his presidency, has said its ban on the former president was permanent. Inc.'s Twitch disabled Mr. Trump's channel. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in March that the platform would reinstate Mr. Trump's account when it was "safe" to do so.

How is Mr. Trump communicating with his supporters now?

By Mr. Trump's standards, he has been quiet. The former president has endorsed congressional candidates and lambasted opponents -- including Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- via press release and interviews, generally on Fox News. He also maintains a direct line to his supporters via his campaign email database, through which he is fundraising for his political-action committee.

The former president has so far stayed away from upstart social-media networks aimed at conservatives, the most prominent of which is Parler. Email has become his go-to communication tool.

In a statement about Wednesday's ruling, Mr. Trump called Facebook as well as Twitter and Google "a total disgrace," adding that "these corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process."

--Alex Leary contributed to this article.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 05, 2021 19:37 ET (23:37 GMT)

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