Facebook’s oversight board will announce on Wednesday whether Donald Trump will be allowed back on to the platform, a decision that will have major implications for the political future of the former president and the Republican party.
The social media platform suspended Trump’s account indefinitely four months ago over fears he could stir further violence and unrest following the storming of the Capitol by a mob of the 45th president’s supporters on January 6.
“We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said at the time.
Later in January, Facebook asked its oversight board — a Supreme Court-style body first appointed in 2020 that hears appeals from users on its content moderation decisions — to review the ban, as well as provide more general recommendations about how the platform should treat rule-breaking content from world leaders.
Its landmark decision, which is binding, is expected at about 9am ET on Wednesday.
The board’s conclusion will dictate whether Trump, once an obsessive user of social media with more than 35m followers on Facebook and 24m on Instagram, will be able to regain access to a powerful channel for energising his supporters and raking in fundraising dollars. The former president has not ruled out running again for the White House in 2024.
It will also be the biggest test to date of Facebook’s 20-member oversight board, made up of academics, civil rights groups and experts across the political spectrum. The board, which is funded by Facebook but otherwise independent from the company, will have the final say on moderation decisions at a time of bipartisan support for tougher regulation of big tech in the US.
Any ruling is likely to be divisive. Civil rights groups have urged Facebook to ban the former president permanently, arguing the social media platform bent its own rules to accommodate him and appease Republicans. Others have argued that the treatment of Trump by Facebook amounts to censorship and a dangerous curb on free speech, and illustrates the unwieldy power the company has amassed.
Facebook rival Twitter banned Trump permanently in January. Google’s YouTube has suspended the former president from the video platform but chief executive Susan Wojcicki said it would lift the freeze once “the risk of violence has decreased”.
The former president has kept a relatively low profile since leaving the White House in late January and snubbed Joe Biden’s inauguration. He has made few public appearances and participated in only a handful of interviews, mostly with Fox News.
He has continued to repeat some of the unproven claims of election fraud that contributed to his bans. He issued several statements on Monday alone through his Save America political action committee, including: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” Trump has also touted the possibility that he might create his own social network.
Facebook’s oversight board: who they are and what they do
What is the oversight board?
The Facebook Oversight board was created to “review a selected number of highly emblematic” content moderation decisions and determine if those were “made in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies”. It is funded by a $130m trust set up by Facebook and launched last year.
Users can appeal to the board against takedowns of content or call for a review of content they think has wrongfully been allowed to remain on the platform. Facebook can also recommend cases — which is what happened in the Trump scenario.
The board can also offer broad policy recommendations to Facebook, although the social media company is not bound to follow them.
Who are they?
The board is made up of 20 academics, human rights and free speech experts and journalists who were selected by Facebook but operate independently. Members include former Guardian newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger, Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman and former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
An anonymous sub-selection of board members are tasked with coming to an initial decision on a case, with which a majority of the board must agree.
What will they decide on Wednesday?
The board will announce whether it will uphold Trump’s suspension. It has also been asked to advise how to approach the suspension of world leaders generally, at a time when figures such as Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines have faced scrutiny for their social media use.
The board’s bylaws allow for a 90-day window to reach a conclusion on a case and an additional week for Facebook to take action. The decision on the Trump case was delayed after the board received some 9,000 responses to its call for comments. Trump has also submitted a “user statement” to the board detailing why he thinks the decision should be overturned.