After a two-year suspension, Meta has announced that it will be reinstating the Facebook and Instagram accounts of former United States president Donald Trump. ARTICLE 19 urges the company to act decisively if the former president violates the company’s Community Guidelines. We remind Meta that it must apply its community standards in light of international human rights law to political leaders, particularly when there is a real and immediate risk of violence and/or human rights abuses. It must also be fully transparent in the way it applies these standards.
In a statement accompanying the announcement, Meta stated that it will ‘put new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses’, including possible limits on distribution of posts that violate its Community Standards and temporarily restricting access to Meta’s advertising tools. Trump might also face further suspensions for ‘between one month and two years’, depending on the severity of his violations.
Commenting on Meta’s decision, Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, said:
‘ARTICLE 19 recognises that Meta needed to strike a balance between preventing serious and immediate harm and safeguarding freedom of expression. The risk of escalating violence merited the decision to suspend Donal Trump’s accounts in January 2021. However, suspensions always raise freedom of expression concerns – we previously argued that an option of account reinstatement should be considered at least once.
‘It remains to be seen what Donald Trump will do with his reinstated accounts. His posts on the Truth Social platform continue to spur hatred, conspiracy theories and disinformation. He may now choose to use his Facebook and Instagram accounts in a similar fashion, given how beneficial those platforms were to him in the past.
‘This is why Meta must take decisive action if Trump, or any other political figure for that matter, fails to follow the community standards..The attempted coup in Brazil just a few weeks ago viscerally demonstrated that words said by political leaders can lead directly to violence and must be subject to extra scrutiny, not less.
‘Fundamentally, the problem is bigger than just Trump. If Meta did not concentrate so much of the world’s population on its platforms, its decisions about speech would not be nearly as significant. Meta’s business model, wholly dependent on user engagement and mass data collection, is prone to the spreading of disinformation and problematic content. This matters, as Meta, and a handful of other social media companies, hold unprecedented power and influence over billions of users across the world. As lawmakers in the United States continue to debate various forms of platform regulation, we once again urge them to consider systemic solutions that address this power.’
Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were suspended on 7 January 2021 over his role in the January 6 Capital riots following the election of President Biden.
Facebook – now Meta – has subsequently referred the decision to its Oversight Board, which upheld the suspension but criticised that the account was suspended for an undefined period without any basis in Facebook’s content policies for such a penalty, and that there were no criteria for when or whether the account would be restored..
The Oversight Board’s recommendations were consistent with those outlined in ARTICLE 19’s submission to the Board. In our submission, we argued that the indefinite suspension of any account raises serious freedom of expression concerns. Although suspensions may be justified while a significant risk of violence or imminent lawless action persists, users should have the possibility to have their account reinstated when those conditions no longer exist. We further argued that Meta should consider international human rights law when applying and enforcing its community standards, including against politicians and country leaders.
Meta should in particular assess any risk of violence by reference to the immediate and wider context. Since political speech is afforded a particularly high level of protection, strong reasons must be given for restrictions to be justified. The relative position and influence of a politician are relevant to the potential reach of their speech in this context.
In response to the Board’s decision, Meta converted the indefinite suspension into a two-year one. The decision was taken in line with a newly-adopted enforcement protocol, clarifying how they restrict accounts by public figures ‘during the times of civil unrest and ongoing violence’. Meta announced it would revisit whether to reinstate Trump’s accounts in January 2023.
At the time, Meta’s global affairs head Nick Clegg confirmed that, if and when the suspension is lifted eventually, ‘there [would] be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr. Trump commits further violations in future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts’.
Following the Board’s decision, Meta has also amended its ‘newsworthiness’ exemptions under which it allows content that might violate its community standards, if Meta considers it newsworthy and in the public interest. In line with ARTICLE 19’s submission to the Board, the exemption now focuses on the speech itself rather than the nature of the speaker when applying the newsworthiness test.