On Friday, Facebook issued a new set of rules for how it will respond to public figures who violate its content policies. Along with these standards, the company announced that former president Donald Trump will be suspended from Facebook for two years.
Under the new rules, public figures who post content that breaks platform policy “during times of civil unrest and ongoing violence” may be penalized between one month and two years. Trump, who was blocked from the platform in the wake of the Capitol riots, has become a test case for this new rule. In a statement, Nick Clegg, Facebook VP of Global Affairs, wrote that at the end of the two-year period the company will consult with experts to assess any risks to public safety that reinstating his account might have.
Critics claim the move isn’t strong enough. The political activist group Decode Democracy said, “Trump has proven he will spread [disinformation] on the platform as soon as he’s given the chance. Facebook should permanently ban Trump based on the totality of his behavior. Failing to do so risks more violence and attacks on our democracy.” Many, including some at Facebook, were quick to point out that Trump’s ban will end just in time for a possible 2024 presidential run.
Clegg writes that the company will take into account “external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly, and other markers of civil unrest.” If there is still a risk, the company will continue the account restriction and reevaluate within a set period of time until experts believe it is safe enough to bring it back online. However, if the account is reactivated, Facebook says it will continue monitoring it closely. “There will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr. Trump commits further violations in the future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts,” Clegg writes.
Facebook first blocked Trump’s account on January 7, 2021, the day after the Capitol riots. Since then, the company’s internal Oversight Board has expressed support for the decision, but called the company out for its failure to provide clarity around the suspension. It recommended the company develop clear standards around its penalties. These new guidelines are Facebook’s response to that recommendation. The company is also attempting to introduce more transparency around its decision-making concerning penalties more broadly, publishing details around its strike system.
The move to continue Trump’s suspension and introduce a system of penalties specifically for public figures who violate platform terms and conditions is a marked change of attitude for the company. Facebook has long shied away from involving itself with the accounts of elected officials, even when they post content that breaks its rules. Notably, in 2019, Clegg wrote that the social network exempts content it deems newsworthy. “This means that if someone makes a statement or shares a post which breaks our community standards, we will still allow it on our platform if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm,” he said.
The company is now changing its policy on newsworthiness. “We grant our newsworthiness allowance to a small number of posts on our platform. Moving forward, we will begin publishing the rare instances when we apply it,” writes Clegg. “Finally, when we assess content for newsworthiness, we will not treat content posted by politicians any differently from content posted by anyone else. Instead, we will simply apply our newsworthiness balancing test in the same way to all content, measuring whether the public interest value of the content outweighs the potential risk of harm by leaving it up.”
Clegg says that Facebook will be adopting 15 of the 18 recommendations the Oversight Board has made. You can read the company’s full response to the Oversight Board’s recommendations here.