SAN FRANCISCO – Facebook said Friday that Donald J. Trump’s suspension from service would last at least two years and keep the former president off social media mainstream for the 2022 midterm elections as the company also said it would cut politics The treatment of posts by politicians is different from that of other users.
The social network said Mr Trump could be reinstated in January 2023, ahead of the next presidential election. It will then turn to experts to decide “whether the risk to public safety has decreased,” said Facebook. The company banned Mr Trump from service after posting comments on social media gathering his supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but there had been no set schedule for when or if the suspension would end would.
“Given the gravity of the circumstances that led to Mr. Trump’s suspension, we believe his actions constituted a grave violation of our rules that deserves the highest penalty available under the new enforcement protocols,” said Nick Clegg, vice president for global affairs on Facebook, wrote in a company blog post.
If he was reinstated, Trump would be subject to a number of “rapidly escalating sanctions” for further violations, up to and including the permanent blocking of his account, Facebook said.
Facebook also said it ended a policy of holding up posts by politicians by default even if their speech breaks the rules.
For years, Facebook and other social media companies had stated that they would not interfere in political statements because they were in the public interest. During Mr Trump’s presidency, corporations did not contain his inflammatory language as he attacked enemies and spread misinformation. They changed their stance after Trump used social media the day the Capitol was attacked.
Facebook’s rethinking of political speech has an impact not only on American politics, but also on world leaders such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who were active on the platform.
Yet Facebook’s moves to create a more specific framework for dealing with political figures are unlikely to satisfy its critics and could add to the company’s disproportionate power over online speech.
“There are many people who believe that it was inappropriate for a private company like Facebook to suspend an outgoing president from its platform, and many others believe that Mr. Trump should have been banned for life immediately.” said Mr. Clegg. “We know that today’s decision will be criticized by many people on opposite sides of the political divide – but our job is to make a decision as proportionately, fairly and transparently as possible.”
He said the moves were in response to criticism that the company had not provided sufficient insight into its decision-making, and he said Facebook is putting in place a system of protocols and sanctions to be applied in exceptional cases like Mr Trump’s.
For Trump, who has been permanently banned on Twitter, Facebook’s action means he will be muted by mainstream platforms during at least the mid-term election cycle of 2022. Mr Trump, who used social media as a megaphone to reach his tens of millions of followers prior to the bans, has found it more difficult to communicate with those supporters – and protrudes even more beyond the Republican primary field. About a month ago he started a blog called “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump”, which he closed again this week after having gained little momentum.
In a statement emailed, Trump said Facebook’s decision was “an insult to the record-breaking 75 million people and many others who voted for us in the rigged 2020 presidential election.” He added that Facebook should not be allowed to “censor and silence” him and others on the platform.
Mr Trump later added a message to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. “The next time I go to the White House, there will be no more dinner with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife at his request,” he said. “It will all be business!”
Facebook said Mr Trump’s two-year suspension was a heavy penalty and a response to criticism that the company had not set a specific timetable for its ban and was not bound by mid-term elections. The company also said it could also extend Mr Trump’s suspension and monitor external factors such as acts of violence to see if it was necessary.
Facebook’s broader shift from automatically excluding politicians’ speech from its rules is a blatant reversal of the freedom of expression that Mr Zuckerberg championed. In a 2019 address at Georgetown University, Mr. Zuckerberg said, “People who have the power to express themselves on a large scale are a new kind of force in the world – a fifth power alongside the other power structures of society.”
But this stance has been criticized by lawmakers, activists, and Facebook staff, who said the company is free to allow misinformation and other harmful speeches by politicians.
While many academics and activists hailed Facebook’s changes as a step in the right direction, they said the new rules were difficult to implement. The company would likely go into an intricate dance with global leaders who got used to special treatment from the platform, they said.
“This change will bring the speeches of world leaders under scrutiny,” said David Kaye, law professor and former United Nations freedom of expression observer. “It will be painful for leaders who are not used to control, and it will also create tension.”
Countries like India, Turkey and Egypt have threatened to crack down on Facebook if it goes against the interests of the ruling parties, Kaye said. Countries said they could punish Facebook’s local employees or ban access to the service, he said.
“This decision by Facebook requires new political calculations for both these global leaders and Facebook,” said Kaye.
Pressure has also come from Russia, where the country’s internet regulator has increased its demands on Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove online content it believes is illegal and restore Kremlin-friendly material that has been blocked. In India, officials from the country’s elite counterterrorism police visited the New Delhi Twitter offices last month in a show of force, a sign that Mr Modi’s administration has become increasingly frustrated with American internet companies.
At Facebook, the decision to seriously change the policy of political speech began after Conservatives and others challenged the decision to banned Mr Trump in January, saying it tasted like censorship. To counter the criticism, Facebook referred Mr. Trump’s case to its board of directors, a company-appointed panel of academics, journalists and former government officials. The board reviews content cases and decides whether Facebook acted correctly.
Last month, the board ruled that Facebook was right to ban Mr. Trump from Facebook, but said the company had not given sufficient reasoning for its decision and that an indefinite suspension of the former president was “inappropriate”. It ruined the decision on whether to permanently reject Mr. Trump on Facebook.
Executives then spent the past few weeks discussing and rethinking the company’s policies, said two people with knowledge of the deliberations, including reviewing why Facebook created a special exemption for politicians. After the executives couldn’t fully explain the exception to themselves, they decided the rule shouldn’t apply automatically, people said.
But the company has still given itself the opportunity to maintain controversial political speeches in what it believes to be rare or special circumstances. If Facebook is of the opinion that a statement by a politician has violated its rules, but is “newsworthy” enough and in the public interest, it can still decide to skip the post. The company plans to disclose such cases as they arise, it said.
Jillian C. York, an expert on Internet censorship at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Berlin, said that Facebook still leaves a lot of leeway. “The new directive is still unclear and leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” she said.
Facebook also said it would provide data to outside experts on how people are using its platform by the end of February so researchers could examine the network’s role in the January 6 riot. This expanded on an effort the company announced last year when it said it would share data on last year’s presidential election.
Facebook has long said it doesn’t want to be a referee. Mr. Zuckerberg has asked the legislature to enact regulations that his company must follow when making substantive decisions.
On Friday, Mr. Clegg reinforced that message.
“American democracy is not part of Silicon Valley. It belongs to the American people, ”said Mr Clegg in a podcast interview. “And it is the lawmakers and politicians of this country who ultimately have to determine the applicable rules.”
Maggie Haberman contributed to the coverage.