Facebook’s oversight board on Wednesday kept in place the ban on former President Donald Trump but thrust back into the company’s lap the final decision of how long the suspension should last — a state of uncertainty that added fuel to Republicans’ push for a crackdown on Big Tech.
The board decided that the social media giant was correct to suspend Mr. Trump after he sowed doubt about the presidential election and was accused of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. But the board said the company’s penalty of an indefinite ban didn’t adhere to its guidelines and wants the company to reassess the punishment within six months.
The panel is tasked with reviewing enforcement and governance decisions on Facebook, but it made clear that it did not want to be responsible for how to tackle Mr. Trump’s case.
“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board said in its decision. “The board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”
Republicans are furious with Facebook’s refusal to restore Mr. Trump’s account, and lawmakers in the party are ready to take such decision-making power away from the company. Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, said in a post on Twitter that the oversight board was “fake” and its real oversight board was Democrats.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, called the board “Orwellian,” and Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, labeled it “disgraceful.”
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“For the Oversight Board to punt such an important decision back to Facebook after months of secret deliberations calls into question their purpose,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, said in a statement. “This is unacceptable and only underscores the need for Congress to step up our work to bring much-needed reform and oversight to Big Tech.”
Mr. Trump is angry with the tech companies, which have banished him online, and wants them to suffer the consequences.
The former president hasn’t ruled out a bid for the presidency in 2024, and getting back on Facebook would help immensely with his fundraising.
“What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country,” Mr. Trump said in a statement after the oversight board’s decision. “Free speech has been taken away from the president of the United States because the radical Left lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before. The people of our country will not stand for it! These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our electoral process.”
Facebook first blocked Mr. Trump for 24 hours immediately after the riot at the Capitol. The next day, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg extended the ban for at least two weeks, until Mr. Trump left office. After President Biden’s inauguration, the company referred the ban to the oversight board.
The board, while technically independent of Facebook, operates with a $130 million trust from the company. As the time for a decision neared last month, the board extended its deadline.
The board’s members include 20 journalists, activists, academics and former elected officials.
Facebook said Wednesday that it would maintain its ban on Mr. Trump while reviewing the decision and noted that the board did not require his reinstatement. Facebook Vice President Nick Clegg, who served as deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Liberal Democrats, wrote that the company believes its ban of Mr. Trump was “necessary and right.”
“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended,” Mr. Clegg wrote on the company’s blog. “The board also made a number of recommendations on how we should improve our policies. While those recommendations are not binding, we actively sought the board’s views on our policies around political figures and will carefully review its recommendations.”
Among the board’s recommendations was that Facebook “rapidly escalate” review of content from highly influential users, such as Mr. Trump, to a specialized staff that would be walled off from political and economic interference.
Twitter and Google have taken vastly different approaches from Facebook on restricting the former president’s digital speech. Twitter suspended Mr. Trump permanently, and Google-owned YouTube’s CEO pledged to restore the former president’s access to its platform. YouTube has not provided a timeline for Mr. Trump’s return and said it had no update when asked this week about when his access would be restored.
Mr. Trump’s political opponents cheered the board’s decision to keep Mr. Trump’s suspension in place.
“I applaud that decision,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said in a Washington Post Live event. He drew a distinction between Facebook and the “public square” and said he thought Facebook had the right to take the action it did.
The Democratic Party said on Twitter that Facebook should permanently ban Mr. Trump and urged its supporters to agree and share the message online.
Republicans also have sought to leverage Facebook’s action to motivate supporters, including by fundraising off the decision. The North Carolina Republican Party sent out an appeal for cash to finance “Republican-led efforts to STOP BIG TECH CENSORSHIP.”
The oversight board outlined a scenario in which Mr. Trump could make a return online.
“If Facebook decides to restore Mr. Trump’s accounts, the company should apply its rules to that decision, including any changes made in response to the board’s policy recommendations below,” the board said in its decision. “In this scenario, Facebook must address any further violations promptly and in accordance with its established content policies.”
Facebook’s actions are being watched closely around the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel viewed permanent suspensions of a president as problematic, according to reports.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont, said during a podcast in March that he did not feel comfortable with Twitter’s decision to permanently ban a sitting president.
The actions to curtail Mr. Trump’s online speech prompted lawmakers and regulators to take a harder look at reining in tech companies’ power. Florida is advancing legislation that would put financial penalties on social networks that ban, or “de-platform,” candidates for statewide office.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has not waited for the social media companies to change their minds. He has made television appearances, including calls into Fox News to discuss the death of conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and to talk about golfer Tiger Woods’ car crash.
The former president also has created a venue to continue posting short digital messages for public consumption on his website, DonaldJTrump.com/desk. The website encourages people to sign up to get alerts when Mr. Trump posts a message. Visitors can share links from the site, but they can’t comment on Mr. Trump’s posts.
⦁ Tom Howell Jr. and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.