Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Wednesday, Facebook’s oversight board upheld the company’s January 7 decision to disable former President Donald Trump’s account in the aftermath of a deadly riot at the nation’s Capitol – but threw the decision back to Facebook on how long the ban should last. The board gave Facebook six months to decide how long the punishment will apply.
There’s only one justifiable verdict that Facebook can reach: Trump should be banned from Facebook – and Instagram, which the company also owns – forever.
Now that he’s not president, there is no defensible reason to allow Trump – a man who misused his power and the platform, as the oversight board ruled, to “(create) an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible”– back on Facebook.
First, let’s recall that part of the reason it was tough for Facebook to ban Trump when he was president was that Trump threatened to use his authority to “strongly regulate” or even shutter social networks entirely (that threat came shortly after Twitter had applied a fact-check to two Trump tweets, and Trump’s implication was that he would take action if social media platforms crossed him in this way).
And Trump and his supporters have long accused Facebook of an anti-Republican bias – a charge that proved enormously effective for Trump at preventing the social media platform from appropriately checking him until the very end of his presidency. But the claim of bias isn’t true.
As Ben Smith explained in The New York Times toward the end of Trump’s tenure, “two people close to the Facebook fact-checking process told me, the vast bulk of the posts getting tagged for being fully or partly false come from the right. That’s not bias. It’s because sites like The Gateway Pundit are full of falsehoods, and because the president says false things a lot.”
Since Trump was voted out of office, any imminent threat of retaliatory “regulation” for applying Facebook’s community standards has receded (though we can certainly expect the Biden administration to regulate social networks for other reasons, such as to better protect privacy, guard against dangerous hate mongering and promote more competition. Facebook itself even supports more rules to give the company direction on how to deal with dicey issues).
The other no-longer-valid justification for once allowing Trump to remain on social media was that it was essential for the electorate to know what the president of the United States had to say. Trump’s actions, beliefs, whims, pronouncements and so on, no longer affect the daily lives of Americans the way they did when he held power.
(And although this shouldn’t be a factor in Facebook’s decision, another happy effect of Trump’s relative absence from social media is that much of the press is now reporting on more important issues rather than Trump’s latest social media feuds and flouting of norms. So, now the electorate is truly more informed than before, when he was sucking up all the oxygen.)
The rules should apply to Trump – and he has repeatedly violated Facebook’s community standards (and Instagram’s community guidelines). Indeed, Facebook’s oversight board found that Trump violated guidelines five times, apart from two posts related to January 6 and that, in the latter instance, he maintained “an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action” – with potential for violence. “At the time of Mr. Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions.”
Specifically, the board noted one Facebook post in which Trump referred to rioters at the Capitol – “We love you. You’re very special,” he wrote–and another post in which he referred to them as “great patriots” and called on people to “remember this day forever.” These contravened rules that prohibit users from supporting or praising people “engaged in violence.”
However, the board also said that Facebook’s decision to ban Trump “indefinitely” was unfairly vague and that the company needs clearer policies for when and how long users are banned - especially when the users are influential. The board also stressed that Facebook needs to consider whether a risk has receded when deciding whether to ban a user and that “suspension periods should be long enough to deter misconduct and may, in appropriate cases, include account or page deletion.”
Now, it’s clear that the threat of violence fomented via Facebook and other platforms has not receded: Trump could easily take to some other website or social media account tomorrow to incite the same people who stormed the Capitol in January to do so again.
What’s more, global activists have repeatedly noted since Trump’s ban early this year that Facebook was inconsistent or slow in applying its own standards in some countries that oppress their citizens or where the government instigates violence. ( “We have established policies for dealing with praise of violence on the platform,” a Facebook spokesperson told the LA Times in an article about those issues in January. “They apply impartially to all users around the world, including politicians, heads of state and leaders.”)
That is another compelling reason for a lifetime ban on Trump: it would send a powerful message not just to the former president but also to the other trolls on Facebook–posting both from the halls of power and their parents’ basements– that they can’t get away with hateful conduct. This single act could therefore make the overall tenor of conversations on the platform much more civil. It would also be a warning to other heads of state that there really are long-term consequences to abusing social media while in office.
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Facebook currently has a team of more than 35,000 people working on safety and security. A ban on Trump could have a more powerful effect than almost anything else all these people could do to fight abuse on the platform.
Let’s remember: Trump wasn’t banned from Facebook for an unfortunate choice of words that caused him to run afoul of the rules. He was banned for inciting violence. The five people who died in the Capitol insurrection and its aftermath aren’t coming back – so Facebook shouldn’t hesitate to tell Trump that his account isn’t, either.