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Factbox: Five takeaways from Facebook oversight board’s Trump case

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(Reuters) – Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)’s oversight board, a body set up by the social network to give independent verdicts on a small number of thorny content decisions, has ruled Facebook was right to bar former U.S. President Donald Trump after the Jan 6. riot but wrong in placing an indefinite suspension.

Here are five takeaways from the board’s case decision:

1. Facebook’s oversight board said the company was correct to block Trump – the first current president, prime minister or head of state it has banned.

The board’s verdict sends a message that the world’s largest social media company may act on other rule-breaking political and influential leaders in the United States and globally, backing Facebook on a major decision that has both been praised for cracking down the violations of an influential account and criticized for abusing a private companies’ power to censor elected leaders.

It also puts a burden on Facebook to be clearer about how it enforces its rules on world leaders. Some human rights advocates have called for the platform to be more consistent in its approach to violations of international leaders and invest more in localized content moderation and expertise.

2. The board passed decision on Trump’s fate to Facebook

The board, which said Facebook should have used the rules on its books rather than an “arbitrary penalty” without an end-date, told the company to come up with a response consistent with its rules within six months.

In punting the case back to Facebook, the board sends the dilemma of how to police one of its most controversial users back to the company and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It said Facebook must decide whether to restore Trump, suspend him for a definite period or restore his account.

Some civil rights groups and Facebook critics blasted the board for passing the buck, which it denied doing. Board members said they were not there to lift responsibility from Facebook but to make sure it follows the rules it has on the books.

The board also recommended Facebook come up with a policy to govern its response to crises where its normal processes would not prevent imminent harm.

3. Trump’s representatives told board outside forces to blame for Capitol riot

The board said that a statement was submitted on Trump’s behalf, through the American Center for Law and Justice and a Trump page administrator, requesting that the board reverse the decision.

The statement said Trump’s Jan. 6 posts did not threaten public safety or incite violence and said there was no serious linkage between Trump’s speech, in which he said the election was stolen and urged protesters “to fight,” and what the statement called “the Capitol building incursion.”

It said the riot was “certainly influenced, and most probably ignited by outside forces” and described a federal complaint against members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, which it said were not associated with Trump.

Trump representatives declined to share the full statement made to the board with Reuters.

4. Board members disagreed on criteria for Trump to return to Facebook

The board said Facebook must decide Trump’s penalty “based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm.”

A minority of the board thought the criteria should include Facebook being satisfied that Trump had stopped making unfounded election fraud claims and withdrawn praise or support for those involved in the riots.

The board also disagreed on how narrowly it needed to assess Trump’s posts in deciding if Facebook’s ban was correct. A minority thought that while the ban was justified on Jan. 6 events, it was important to look at posts before the November election, including Trump’s post during racial justice protests that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and multiple posts referencing the “China Virus.”

5. The board says Facebook needs to tell users about its newsworthiness rules

The board said Facebook needs to be less opaque and address the confusion it has caused around how it makes decisions on influential users, though this recommendation is not binding.

Facebook’s newsworthiness allowance allows violating posts to stay up where the public interest outweighs the harm. Facebook told the board it did not apply the exemption to the posts in the Trump case, even though the company has previously said it treats politicians’ speech as newsworthy.

The basic principle of giving world leaders greater latitude than average users has been criticized by some researchers and human rights advocates, who argue these posts should instead be more strictly policed.

The board said all users should be held to the same content rules, but it emphasized Facebook should take quick action when posts by influential users pose a high probability of imminent harm and that this should take priority over other values of political communication.

The board noted it does not see a useful distinction between political leaders and other influential users on the site.

It also said Facebook’s penalty system in general was not clear and it should tell users more about the “strikes” it imposes, how penalties are calculated and give warnings before restricting accounts on Facebook and Instagram.

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