Facebook’s Oversight Board Avoids Ruling on Incitement in Donald Trump case

Today Facebook’s Oversight Board correctly upheld the company’s decision to suspend Donald Trump from its platforms, but disappointingly relied only on a narrow basis that was different from the obvious and vital one: inciting violence. Just like Facebook, the Board based its decision on the fact that Trump praised people who were already committing the attack that he had clearly inspired. That was much too little, too late.

In a statement he posted to Facebook and Instagram as a video at 4:21 pm on January 6, when the riot was already well underway, Trump nominally told the rioters to go home but also declared his own love for them and told them “you’re very special.”  That violated a clause in Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations rule, against expressing support or praise for people engaged in “violating events” such as smashing one’s way into the U.S. Capitol and attacking people inside it.

Facebook also has a Standard on Violence and Incitement but the Board, which is a group of 20 prominent journalists, lawyers, and former political leaders appointed by Facebook to review specific content moderation decisions that the company refers to it, declined to decide whether Trump violated that rule. A minority group of Board members disagreed, opining that the Board should have considered incitement, and finding that Trump did incite violence. Importantly, the minority members noted that Trump’s false assertions that the election was “stolen from us” and “so unceremoniously viciously stripped,” pronounced together with praise of the rioters, constituted incitement to violence.

The Board should have taken this unparalleled opportunity to apply Facebook’s rules correctly to more of Trump’s posts, not only two of his last ones. Indeed the minority wrote that the Board should have included Trump’s earlier posts, including one from May 2020, in which he wrote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and his repeated reference to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” in its analysis.

Kudos to the minority members. The real, constructive reason for suspending Trump is that he incited violence, not that he celebrated it once it was happening. Facebook suspended him “indefinitely” much too late to prevent the riot, and the Board’s decision failed to direct Facebook to correct that in future cases.

The Board did ask Facebook to come up with a new policy for influential users who incite violence, but gave only general advice in its nonbinding “policy advisory statement.”  We agree that “Facebook must assess posts by influential users in context according to the way they are likely to be understood, even if their incendiary message is couched in language designed to avoid responsibility” as the Board wrote in its statement; that is very similar to advice the DSP gave in its comment to the Board on the Trump case. Now that the Board has dropped the ball back in Facebook’s court, we look forward to a new, detailed policy from Facebook, on how to prevent influential people from continuing to incite violence on the company’s platforms. It is happening, unfortunately, all the time, and Facebook could and should do a much better job of preventing it.

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