Facebook Oversight Board Is Set to Rule on Donald Trump Ban

Facebook Inc.’s

FB -1.31%

independent oversight board said it would issue a ruling Wednesday morning that could determine whether former President

Donald Trump

can return to the company’s Facebook and Instagram platforms. Facebook was among social-media platforms that suspended his accounts following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

The coming ruling places a spotlight on a relatively new panel that is unique among social-media companies.

Why did Facebook suspend Mr. Trump?

Facebook has said it found that two posts by the former president violated the company’s rules against praise and support for the riot at the Capitol. In a video posted to Facebook and an accompanying post, Mr. Trump reiterated unsubstantiated claims about election fraud and, while encouraging the rioters to go home peacefully, implied that their actions stemmed from justifiable anger.

Facebook ruled that content was prohibited, and Mr. Zuckerberg said Mr. Trump was seeking “to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor,

Joe Biden.

But questions remain about the timing and rationale of Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision, with critics alleging the company was stifling free speech or that the former president was banned to appease the incoming Democratic administration.

“The reaction to our decision shows the delicate balance private companies are being asked to strike,” said

Nick Clegg,

Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, in a January company blog post. “Some said that Facebook should have banned President Trump long ago, and that the violence on the Capitol was itself a product of social media; others that it was an unacceptable display of unaccountable corporate power over political speech,” he said in the post.

What is the oversight board and why was it created?

Funded by Facebook through an endowment established in 2019, the oversight board is designed to help the company tackle its thorniest content-moderation issues and make policy recommendations.

The board operates like a Supreme Court for content; the company can refer cases or individual users can submit petitions for the board to consider. The board considers whether Facebook erred in removing content or accounts from its platforms or left intact content that should have been taken down under company rules. Facebook has pledged to abide by the panel’s decisions.

The oversight board made its first rulings earlier this year and showed a willingness to overturn the company’s past content-moderation decisions.

Big Tech’s deplatforming of former President Donald Trump has sparked a debate about the future of content moderation on social media. WSJ speaks with a disinformation and moderation expert about what comes next. (Video from 1/22/21)
Who is on the board and how did they get there?

The board’s 20-person roster has a lot of lawyers—with human-rights advocates, former politicians and journalists as well. Facebook chose the initial members, who then took over the job of selecting their peers with an eye to geographic diversity. Facebook has said the panel could eventually have as many as 40 members.

How are board decisions made?

The board hears cases on a rotating basis, with five-judge panels ruling on whether Facebook correctly applied its own rules by removing—or leaving up—a particular piece of content. The names of which five members are adjudicating the ban on Mr. Trump are to remain secret, as is standard board procedure.

Once the five members reach a decision, a majority of the full board must vote to approve it. If a majority of the board were to disagree with the decision, the case would be sent back to another panel, starting the process again.

Does Facebook have to accept the board’s decision?

Yes. The oversight board has the final say on the individual pieces of content that it reviews, as well as the ability to offer broader recommendations and criticisms. Facebook has said it would abide by the board’s content decisions. However, the company has discretion on whether to implement any policy recommendations.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been quietly working to prepare Madison Avenue for the long-anticipated ruling. Over the past few weeks, the company has reached out to advertising agencies in calls and emails to describe the board’s process and emphasize that its management team has no sway over the board’s decision, ad executives said.

How did other social-media platforms handle Mr. Trump?

Social-media platforms including

Alphabet Inc.’s


Twitter Inc.

and Facebook suspended Mr. Trump’s accounts in the wake of the riot.

Twitter, which Mr. Trump frequently used throughout his presidency, has said its ban on the former president was permanent.

Amazon.com Inc.’s

Twitch disabled Mr. Trump’s channel. YouTube CEO

Susan Wojcicki

said in March that the platform would reinstate Mr. Trump’s account when it was “safe” to do so.

How is Mr. Trump communicating with his supporters now?

By Mr. Trump’s standards, he has been quiet. The former president has endorsed congressional candidates and lambasted opponents—including Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—via press release and interviews, generally on Fox News. He also maintains a direct line to his supporters via his campaign email database, through which he is fundraising for his political-action committee.

The former president has so far stayed away from upstart social-media networks aimed at conservatives, the most prominent of which is Parler.

Has the board given any hints of how it will rule?

The board hasn’t commented on how it may rule in Mr. Trump’s case.

Early decisions from the panel emphasize freedom of speech, even in cases where Facebook took down content that it deemed hateful or a threat to public safety. The board in January ruled Facebook should restore a post from a user in Myanmar that said there is “something wrong with Muslims psychologically.” In its decision the board said it was aware minority Rohingya Muslims have faced violence in the country and that “while the post might be considered offensive, it did not reach the level of hate speech.”

Outside observers such as Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who has followed the nascent board closely, have said the rulings suggest a serious possibility that the board will opt to return Mr. Trump to the platform.

Donald Trump and Social Media

Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com

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