Facebook's Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld the social media giant's decision to suspend former US president Donald Trump's account in January after the Capitol riots, but criticised the indefinite suspension and gave the company six months to reexamine its arbitrary penalty.
"(The then) 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, which was created by Facebook as an independent oversight body.
"By maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, 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," he said as the board upheld Facebook's decision on January 7 to suspend Trump from Facebook and Instagram.
Noting that Facebook failed to impose a proper penalty, the Board 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, it said in a statement.
"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. Anyone concerned about the power of Facebook should be concerned with the company making decisions outside of its own rules," Hughes said.
Within six months of the Board's decision, Facebook must reexamine this arbitrary penalty and impose one consistent with its own rules. This penalty must be based on the gravity of Trump's violation and the prospect of future harm. This time period allows Facebook to implement the Board's extensive policy recommendations, it said.
In its set of recommendations, the Board said that 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.
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.
The Board recommended that 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.
This should be an open reflection on Facebook's design and policy choices that may allow its platform to be abused, it said.
Recommending Facebook to publish a new policy which would govern its response to crisis situations, the Board said that the social media giant should explain its strikes and penalties process, giving users more information, including how many strikes' have been assessed against them.