A decision by Facebook's independent oversight board to keep former US President Donald Trump’s accounts blocked could have consequences for politicians around the globe.
In a widely-expected verdict , the panel said Wednesday that the company had done the right thing by taking down Trump’s account after the January 6 riot of the US Capitol and ruled that the ban should hold — at least for now.
But the experts also voiced harsh criticism of Facebook: While suspending Trump’s account had been the right move, the tech giant had been wrong in banning him indefinitely without clear criteria for when — if ever — his account would be restored, they said.
Within six months, they added, the firm should reassess the case and come up with a final decision on what to do with the former president’s account.
It was a clever move, putting the ball back in the company’s court and forcing Facebook to produce clearer rules for what justifies banning political leaders from its platform and Instagram, which it also owns.
Tougher rules could now be looming
Those rules could become ever more important if Trump decided to run for political office again.
But Wednesday’s decision will have implications far beyond US politics.
Political leaders around the globe have in the past been allowed to break some of Facebook’s content rules if public interest outweighed the harm done by their posts.
When Facebook suspended Trump’s account in January — the first time the company blocked a current head of state — some saw that as a sign that the firm could reverse its hands-off approach.
And with the oversight board confirming that the ban was justified, tougher rules could now be looming for other politicians, too.
“If a head of state or high government official has repeatedly posted messages that pose a risk of harm under international human rights norms, Facebook should suspend the account for a period sufficient to protect against imminent harm,” the experts added in a set of recommendations released along with their decision.
If Facebook’s leadership decides to follow their advice, this could have consequences for politicians like Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has used the platform to spread racist comments about Indigenous people.
It’s a big “if.”
Is Facebook listening?
The Facebook oversight board, a group of 20 technology experts ranging from lawyers to journalists, only started hearing cases in last October. And while it has the power to overturn earlier content decisions like the suspension of Trump’s account, it can only give non-binding recommendations when it comes to changing Facebook’s ongoing content moderation practices.
That’s why the coming months will be a litmus test for what kind of power the new board really holds.
“The oversight board is clearly telling Facebook that they can’t just invent new unwritten rules when it suits them,” former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a co-chair on the board, told journalists after the decision was announced.
Let’s see if Facebook is listening.
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