Facebook's independent Oversight Board has announced its most high-profile ruling to date, in upholding Facebook's ban of former US President Donald Trump due to comments Trump posted to Facebook in relation to election fraud, which the Board agreed then contributed to the Capitol Riots in January.
But the Board has also called on Facebook to establish clearer rules around such violations, and the penalties for the same, while it's also ruled that Facebook must review Trump's suspension within six months, noting that the indefinite ban on Trump's accounts is not consistent with the company’s content policies.
That means that Trump's accounts could still be, and likely will be, reinstated before the end of the year - but importantly, that's not the key focus of the Board's full announcement on the case.
Within its ruling, the Oversight Board found that Trump's posts in the midst of the Capitol Riots 'severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines'.
As per the Oversight Board:
"The Board found that, in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible. At the time of Mr. Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions."
The Board also notes that Trump's massive following on both platforms significantly increased his influence in this respect, amplifying such concerns.
For these reasons, the Board decided to uphold Facebook's original ruling - though as noted, it also called on Facebook to set clearer rules around such moving forward, while noting that Facebook cannot arbitrarily apply indefinite suspensions.
"It is not 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. In applying this penalty, Facebook did not follow a clear, published procedure. ‘Indefinite’ suspensions are not described in the company’s content policies. Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account."
As a result, the Board has ruled that Facebook must reexamine its suspension of Trump's accounts, and maintain consistent process in all cases.
"In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty."
No one was 100% sure which way the Oversight Board would lean on Trump's case, but the standard view seemed to be that the Board would have to reinstate Trump's account based on consistent practice. The Board has largely aligned with that perspective, while still maintaining Facebook's original ban - while the Board has also outlined key next steps in development as a result of the incident.
Which is really where Facebook, and all social platforms, need to be looking.
As I noted back in January, a week after Facebook's original Trump ban:
"While coverage continues to focus on Trump being banned from the next platform and the next, the real question is what happened that pushed it to this level, and where the bar needs to be set, so that we can't reach this point again."
Given the divisive nature of Trump, it makes sense that many have focused on him, and his case specifically, but really, it's not about Trump himself, it's about learning from what happened and establishing clearer policies and processes to avoid similar from occurring again.
The Board has noted the same in its findings, particularly in regards to clarity around the platform's approach in such cases.
"The Board called on Facebook to address widespread confusion about how decisions relating to influential users are made. The Board stressed that considerations of newsworthiness should not take priority when urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm."
It's possible that Facebook may be able to have a different set of rules for public figures, as it maintained throughout the Trump Presidency, but the key point is that it needs to be clear on exactly what those rules are, in order to make it clear to everyone why and how they will be enforced.
And then, as the Oversight Board notes, there are still parameters around that. When there's a risk of serious harm, there should be no exemptions, as was the case around the Capitol incident.
The Board also makes one other key point in its ruling, calling on Facebook to:
"Undertake a comprehensive review of Facebook’s potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence in the United States on January 6. This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may allow its platform to be abused."
This is another key step. Again, the most important thing right now is not whether Facebook's rulings align with your personal opinion, but that we learn from what happened, what the dangers and harms were, and what can be done, from a policy and enforcement standpoint, to ensure social platforms are not weaponized by political leaders in future.
A key part in that process lies in undertaking a full, transparent review of the role that Facebook played in the growth of dangerous movements, like QAnon, and whether more needs to be done - and how - to better detect and halt the same in future.
That's not happening right now, and it's likely that, already, the seeds of the next major movements are being planted via Facebook posts and within Facebook groups, which will eventually grow into the next wave of dissent.
By analyzing the rise of such, based on what we've now witnessed, Facebook will be better placed to counter such moving forward, either through rule changes, suspensions, or other forms of action to limit their growth before it's too late.
In this sense, the Oversight Board is focused on the right elements. It could have gone for a big ruling, it could have made Trump himself a bigger focus, or made a big statement by opposing Facebook's practices to highlight its independence from Zuck and Co.
But instead, the ruling is measured, and focused on achieving a better outcome.
In this sense, Trump himself is something of a red herring, a lightning rod of distraction, which clouds the real purpose. The Board has done a good job of reiterating this, and formulating a balanced and logical map of next steps.