Meta Reinstates Trump’s Facebook Account, Implements New ‘Civil Unrest’ Protocol for Public Figures

We are disappointed to learn of Meta’s decision to restore Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. As we wrote to the Oversight Board two years ago:

The ban is fully consistent with Facebook’s rules and values, and with international human rights law. Trump’s posts imperiled the safety of Facebook users, members of the U.S. Congress, and even the U.S. political system, by helping to convince millions of people that the election was fraudulent, and that they had a right or even a duty to block the peaceful transition of power. Facebook failed to protect safety by waiting to intervene until people had been killed. If reinstated, Trump would likely continue to post as before. During the Jan 6 attack, he repeated his election lie and expressed love for the rioting mob, and has not changed his tune since.

Also, Facebook deprived Trump of neither “voice” nor freedom of expression. As U.S. President, he had perhaps the world’s largest set of megaphones, on and offline. Though he is now ex-President and has been banned by other platforms, he has innumerable opportunities to speak. He sends emails, gives speeches, buys advertising, and can even circulate content on Facebook and other platforms through proxies and supporters. Finally, the ban is in keeping with the legality, necessity and legitimacy prongs of Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: under Facebook’s Community Standards egregious violators of its rules will be banned, the ban is necessary to prevent further violence, and it will further the legitimate public interest of preserving public order.

Meta initially banned Trump because of his “praise for people engaged in violence” and his “decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the capitol building.” This was too little too late, since they banned him *after* the violence had already happened. Nothing has changed about Trump’s speech or behavior since then: he has never recanted anything he said in support of the insurrectionists on January 6th, nor his incitement of violence leading up to it.

There’s no reason to believe anything is going to be different about Trump’s behavior this time. But there is some reason to believe that Meta will do better.

We’ve criticized Meta for their inclination to give public figures special treatment and only place limits on their content in the most extreme circumstances. Meta says it’s going to be different this time. According to their blog post:

In light of his violations, he now also faces heightened penalties for repeat offenses — penalties which will apply to other public figures whose accounts are reinstated from suspensions related to civil unrest under our updated protocol. In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation.

There’s actually a lot to like about that new protocol. In contrast to the company’s past positions on ‘newsworthiness’ of content posted by public figures, this new guidance acknowledges the outsized role that public figures can have:

Public figures often have broader influence across our platforms; therefore, they may pose a greater risk of harm when they violate our policies.

When gauging the severity of an infraction, Meta says they will consider among other things, “the public figure’s potential influence over, and relationship to, the individuals engaged in violence.” This is a key factor in evaluating dangerous speech, so it’s good to see it reflected here. And it makes a lot of sense to hold public figures who have broken the rules before to a higher standard and impose harsher penalties for future violations, as well as restricting the reach of content that 1) doesn’t violate the Community Standards but is similar to violating content they’ve posted in the past, and 2) content that violates Community Standards but is retained under the newsworthiness policy.

In this policy, though, Meta continues to make the same crucial mistake that they made when they first suspended Trump’s account: this policy doesn’t apply until civil unrest or violence is already happening. As we’ve said before, Meta’s decision to ban Trump after the January 6th attack was too little too late: they were identifying incitement to violence in the rearview mirror, after the violence had already happened, even though they knew (or should have known) beforehand that Trump’s audience was understanding his words as a call to violent action.

Bottom line: while we think restoring Trump’s account access was a mistake, Meta’s new protocol offers some reason to be cautiously optimistic. The company still needs to do more to address dangerous speech and incitement to violence when it’s happening instead of waiting until violence is underway.