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Facebook Oversight Board: No place for Trump’s hate and disinformation on its platforms

Originally published May 5, 2021

Update (June 4, 2021): Facebook announced that it will suspend former U.S. President Donald Trump from the platform for two years, effective until January 7, 2023. It will then reevaluate Trump’s ban to “assess whether the risk to public safety has receded,” writes Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg.

Today, May 5, 2021, the Facebook Oversight Board upheld the “deplatforming” of former U.S. President Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram, finding Facebook’s decision to be necessary and proportionate. Access Now welcomes this decision, even though the decision states that it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an indefinite suspension without sufficient clarity in Facebook’s terms and procedures. While it is positive that the Facebook Oversight Board requires Facebook to clarify its rules and procedures on this issue, we can’t forget that Trump has a long history of using the platforms to incite violence and spread disinformation. 

Access Now deemed Facebook’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account in January 2021 a necessary and proportionate response. Under the international human rights framework, incitement to violence and hatred allow for the application of last resort measures to guarantee public safety. As a number of experts note, since the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Trump spread false theories of voter fraud, and encouraged violent insurrection on January 6, 2021. Such forms of expression are not covered by the right to freedom of expression and opinion. And the fact these outbursts remained online proves Facebook’s inability to moderate Trump’s content.

“Access Now supports the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision to keep Trump off its platforms. Power and privilege cannot buy you free rein to attack democratic discourse  — in this case, spreading dangerous disinformation and inciting violence,” said Eliska Pirkova, Europe Policy Analyst at Access Now. “However, it is unclear whether Trump’s long record of fomenting discrimination against marginalized groups and spreading disinformation could justify an indefinite suspension.” 

Today’s decision lacks meaningful transparency about how Facebook’s algorithmic content curation, interface design, and policies could have amplified Trump’s content. Despite the fact that the Board requested this information from the social media giant, Facebook refused — again and again — to disclose the data. Transparency is an essential prerequisite for public oversight of Facebook’s decision-making processes that have global and far-reaching consequences. Due to Facebook’s refusal to share this essential information, the decision fails to answer crucial questions about how Facebook’s systems impact democratic public discourse.  

The Facebook Oversight Board is not an independent judicial authority, and therefore cannot replace independent public oversight that has democratic legitimacy.