Former President Donald Trump will find out whether he gets to return to Facebook on Wednesday, when the social network’s quasi-independent Oversight Board plans to announce its ruling in the high-profile case.
The decision likely to stir up strong feelings no matter which way it goes. If the board rules in Trump’s favor, Facebook has seven days to reinstate his account. If it upholds Facebook’s decision, Trump will remain “indefinitely suspended.” That means he’ll remain banned from the platform for as long as Facebook sees fit.
Here’s how the process works and what might happen after Wednesday’s announcement.
WHY DID TRUMP GET SUSPENDED?
Trump’s Facebook account was suspended for inciting violence that led to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riots. After years of treating Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric with a light touch, Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns, silenced his accounts on Jan. 7, saying at the time he’d be suspended “at least” through the end of his presidency on Jan. 20.
In a short video posted on his social media accounts, Trump had urged his supporters to “go home” while also repeating falsehoods about the integrity of the presidential election.
Facebook’s move came after Trump was booted off Twitter, his preferred site for reaching his millions of social-media followers.
WHAT IS THE OVERSIGHT BOARD AND HOW DOES IT MAKE ITS DECISIONS?
Facebook created the oversight panel to rule on thorny content on its platforms. Its creation came in response to widespread criticism about the company’s inability to respond swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and nefarious influence campaigns. Facebook has said it doesn’t believe that it should be the final word on such monumental questions of content moderation and speech.
The board’s 20 members, which will eventually grow to 40, include a former prime minister of Denmark, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper, along with legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists.
The first four board members were directly chosen by Facebook. Those four then worked with Facebook to select additional members. Facebook pays each board member a salary through an “independent trust.”
The board’s independence has been questioned by critics who say it’s just part of a Facebook public-relations campaign intended to draw attention away from deeper problems of hate and misinformation that still flourish on its platforms.
Sort of like a quasi Supreme Court, the board’s decisions on the cases are binding. It can also make additional suggestions that are not binding but Facebook so far has signaled it is willing to take them into consideration.
WHAT ARE SOME PREVIOUS CASES?
Facebook regularly takes down thousands of posts and accounts, and about 150,000 of those cases have appealed to the oversight board since it launched in October. The board has said that is prioritizing the review of cases that have the potential to affect many users around the world. Its decisions so far have weighed on the side of free expression over restricting content.
In its initial batch of rulings, announced in January, the board ordered Facebook to restore posts by users that the company said broke standards on adult nudity, hate speech, or dangerous individuals.
DID TRUMP GET SPECIAL TREATMENT FROM FACEBOOK?
Until the January riots, Trump was largely treated with kid gloves by Facebook and other social media platforms. This despite a history of spreading misinformation, promulgating hate and — what finally got him banned — inciting violence. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged this.
Trump had remained on Facebook because the company believes “the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech.” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on Jan. 7 explaining the company’s decision to suspend Trump.
Part of this was the extra leeway Facebook has given to politicians and world leaders. But as the January events showed, there is a limit even for politicians, including U.S. presidents.
COULD TRUMP GET BANNED AGAIN IF HE IS REINSTATED?
Yes. The oversight board is only ruling on Trump’s January “indefinite suspension.” If he is allowed back on Facebook, he will be subject to the same rules as any other user. And because he’s no longer president, he won’t be allotted the exemptions he was previously given.
HOW DID OTHER TECH COMPANIES HANDLE TRUMP?
Twitter banned him once and for all, no appeals. On YouTube, Trump’s channel is still up but it is banned from posting new videos. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, YouTube does not make exemptions for politicians and world leaders. It has a three-strikes policy that applies to every user, CEO Susan Wojcicki said in March.
YouTube “will lift the suspension of the Donald Trump channel when we determine that the risk of violence has decreased,” Wojcicki said. This has not happened yet.
Twitch and Snapchat also disabled Trump’s accounts, while Shopify took down online stores affiliated with the president and Reddit removed a Trump subgroup.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OTHER POLITICIANS?
Some human rights activists and other critics have lambasted Facebook and other social media companies for not banning autocratic world leaders from their platforms even as they banned Trump. While the company has restricted the accounts of other world leaders in the past, Trump is the most high-profile political figure to be suspended for as long as he has been.
Politicians, activists and free speech advocates are watching Trump’s case closely because it could influence how other politicians are treated by the social network in the future. The oversight board could make other recommendations to Facebook on how to treat political speech and world leaders — if it should continue to give them more leeway than regular users, for instance.
The board’s decision “will be far less important than the rationale behind it,” said Elizabeth Renieris, founding director of the Technology Ethics Lab at the University of Notre Dame. “Trump was not the first and will certainly not be the last prominent public figure to abuse powerful platforms for problematic and often dangerous ends, including incitement to violence.”