- This week, Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the suspension of Donald Trump’s Facebook account.
- Discussions surrounding the defensibility of the decision have since gained momentum.
- Insider spoke to two freedom of expression experts to gauge their opinions on the ruling.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Earlier this week, Facebook’s Oversight Board announced its decision on the future of ex-president, Donald Trump’s account. On Wednesday, the independent board ruled to uphold the social network’s suspension of Trump’s account but said the company must review its decision within six months.
The key decision came after Facebook suspended Trump’s account on January 7, after the Capitol Siege, which he’s been accused of inciting.
“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7 to suspend then-President Trump from Facebook and Instagram. Trump’s posts during the Capitol riot severely violated Facebook’s rules and encouraged and legitimized violence,” the Oversight Board said in a tweet.
But it added that it was “not appropriate” for the company to “impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”
“Facebook must complete its review of this matter within six months of the date of this decision,” the board continued.
Wednesday’s decision cannot be countermanded by any Facebook employee, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Discussions surrounding the validity of the Oversight Board’s decision and the twisted relationship between social media and freedom of expression have since gained momentum.
Insider spoke to two freedom of expression experts who weighed in on the ruling.
American University professor, Susan Benesch, founded the Dangerous Speech Project. The organization studies speech that can lead to violence and finds ways to prevent it without infringing on freedom of expression.
Explaining what the board failed to address in their decision, she said it “correctly upheld the company’s decision to suspend Donald Trump from its platforms, but disappointingly relied only on a narrow basis that was different from the obvious and vital one: inciting violence.”
She continued: “The real, constructive reason for suspending Trump is that he incited violence, not that he celebrated it once it was happening. Facebook suspended him ‘indefinitely’ much too late to prevent the riot, and the Board’s decision failed to direct Facebook to correct that in future cases.”
A minority group of board members disagreed, opining that the board should have considered incitement, and finding that Trump did incite violence, Benesch said.
“The minority members noted that Trump’s false assertions that the election was “stolen from us” and “so unceremoniously viciously stripped,” pronounced together with praise of the rioters, constituted incitement to violence,” she said, adding: “Kudos to the minority members.”
When asked whether the Oversight Board made the right decision, Eric Barendt, a professor of law at UCL, whose research focuses on media legislation and freedom of speech, told Insider: “Perhaps he should have been re-admitted, subject to conditions about not engaging in, say, hate speech or any further incitement to disorder with immediate de-platforming if he infringes again.”
To that end, he added that social media platforms have a responsibility to control cases of hate speech and cyber-bullying, for example, but equally, they have become de facto public forums for speech, “and so they should allow all access to them provided the speech does not infringe the law,” he said.
For Barendt, the Trump case is a good example of where freedom of expression should be restricted, but not by Facebook without legal authority.
He said the decision was “defensible,” but scorned the idea of social media companies having the power to regulate freedom of expression. “I am not happy with them having unlimited power to do so.”
In the US, free speech is protected only against government decisions and laws, Barendt explained. For that reason, there is nothing Trump and others denied access to social media platforms can do about it.
“There are no First Amendment objections to some legal restrictions on platforms outside the US. But without such restrictions, Facebook are free to limit speech and that is arguably private censorship by a social media site,” Barendt said.