In a significant development, the independent Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld Facebook's decision on January 7 to suspend then US President Donald Trump from its main platform and Instagram.
The Board found that Trump's posts severely violated Facebook's rules, and his words of support for those involved in the attack on the US Capitol building legitimised violence in a situation where there was an immediate risk to people's lives.
While the Board concluded that Trump should have been suspended from Facebook and Instagram, it also found that Facebook failed to impose a proper penalty.
The decision came as the former US President launched a new so-called social media platform, which is actually a WordPress blog on his own website.
"President Trump's actions on social media encouraged and legitimised violence and were a severe violation of Facebook's rules," said Thomas Hughes, Director of the Oversight Board Administration.
"By 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. Facebook's decision to suspend the President on January 7 was the right one," Hughes added.
However, it said that instead of applying one of its established account-level penalties for severe violations, Facebook devised an "indefinite" suspension which is not included in their content policies.
"This arbitrary penalty gave Facebook total discretion over whether to lift or maintain the suspension, with no criteria that can be scrutinised by users or external observers," the Board observed.
"The Board rejects Facebook's request for it to endorse indefinite suspension, which gives the company total discretion over when to lift or impose and isn't supported by their content policies," said Hughes. "Anyone concerned about the power of Facebook should be concerned with the company making decisions outside of its own rules."
The Board stated that within six months of the decision, Facebook must reexamine this arbitrary penalty and impose one consistent with its own rules.
"In the future, if a head of state or high government official repeatedly posts messages that pose a risk of harm, Facebook should either suspend the account for a definitive period or delete the account," it recommended.
Facebook's rules should ensure that when it imposes a time-bound suspension on an influential user, the company should assess the risk of inciting harm before the suspension ends.
"Influential users who pose a risk of harm should not be reinstated. Facebook should publish a full report on its potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and political tensions that led to the events of January 6," as per the decision.
The board, constituted by Facebook with 20 members from across the world last year, last month said it was reviewing more than 9,000 responses before it delivers the verdict on Trump's ban on the social media.
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