Facebook announced Friday that former president Donald Trump will be suspended for two years after his Facebook and Instagram accounts made posts that praised the violent insurrection at the US Capitol that sought to overturn his loss in the presidential election.
“Given the gravity of the circumstances that led to Mr. Trump’s suspension, we believe his actions constituted a severe violation of our rules which merit the highest penalty available under the new enforcement protocols,” the company said in the announcement.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said when the ban expires on Jan. 7, 2023, the company will “look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded.”
The former president called the two-year ban an “insult” in a statement, adding, “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this censoring and silencing.” In a subsequent statement, he said, “Next time I’m in the White House there will be no more dinners, at his request, with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. It will be all business!”
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki raised doubts that Trump would change his behavior within the next two years: “Pretty unlikely that the zebra is going to change his stripes,” she said.
A Facebook spokesperson referred BuzzFeed News to the company blog.
In an interview soon after the decision, Clegg defended Facebook’s approach. “We need to act proportionately, and that’s why we haven’t chosen to say that he has a permanent ban,” he told Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. “I mean, that may occur in the future if he were to repeat these violations, but for now we’ve said, ‘No, we’ll impose the heaviest penalty we can under our existing or new rules.’ But we think that giving private companies the power as a commercial entity to sort of permanently banish someone from significant parts of online discourse is a very significant step.”
But some Facebook employees raised questions and derided the decision on an internal message board, criticizing the company for levying what they saw as too lenient a penalty.
“Two years for a coup, not bad,” one employee wrote sarcastically as a comment to an internal post from Clegg announcing the decision.
“If this gets 2 years, what can one possibly do to get a lifetime ban,” another person wrote. One employee declared the decision “a joke.”
Another worker posted part of a statement from Trump last month in which the former president said, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020, will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
The Facebook employee added, “We must stop evaluating this kind of violence-producing behavior in isolation. Facebook, as a communications platform, does not exist in a vacuum. His actions on the platform must be contextualized with his action off the platform.” (In its announcement, the company did not say specifically if it would monitor the former president’s activity on other social media or communications platforms.)
“I’m frankly ashamed that you arrived at this conclusion that he is not obviously a case for permanent suspension,” the employee continued. “He is still eroding trust in democracy and spewing the same toxic lies that got us to this point.”
If, after two years, Facebook thinks there’s a “serious risk to public safety” by letting Trump back on, the restriction will be renewed for a period of time and then reevaluated.
When — or if — Trump is allowed back on Facebook and Instagram, any infractions against the platform’s community standards would result in “a set of rapidly escalating sanctions” that could include the “permanent removal of his pages and accounts,” according to the post.
Disinformation experts warned of consequences should Trump be allowed to return. “Even if he doesn’t run for president, he will be able to reach millions of people in an instant, and sway people’s confidence in the next election,” Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told BuzzFeed News.
In the announcement, Facebook also admitted fault in how it handled Trump’s posts in January 2020. It noted that the social network “did not have enforcement protocols in place adequate to respond to such unusual events,” but said that they were in place now.
On May 5, the Oversight Board, a Facebook-administered advisory committee, upheld the suspension but asked the company to revisit the penalty. The ruling included 19 recommendations, and Facebook said it would fully implement 15 of them. These included a mandate to “act quickly on posts made by influential users that pose a high probability of imminent harm” and consider the context when making assessments about harm.
The former president has used Facebook and other social media platforms to spread hate and false information to his supporters, including by claiming the election was stolen. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Jan. 7.
Trump has reportedly told supporters privately that he thinks he will be “reinstated” as president in August. This will not happen — but Trump has also suggested recently that he is considering running for president in 2024.
“Wonderful, so he’ll be back just in time for the 2024 campaign cycle to spread more lies and hatred,” wrote an employee on Facebook’s internal message board.
After Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and several other social networks locked down his accounts, Trump has fumbled to stay relevant. He has issued press releases that mimic social media posts and briefly started his own blog before closing it after just 29 days.
The decision, which allows Trump to potentially return during the 2024 primary season, is part of a larger effort by the company to rethink its approach to politicians. Yesterday, the company announced that elected officials would be subject to the same content moderation rules as everyone else.
As of Friday, no other social media companies had changed their decisions regarding the former president. A spokesperson for Twitter, which permanently banned Trump, told BuzzFeed News that its decision was final. YouTube, which also banned Trump, had previously indicated that it would lift that suspension when the risk of offline violence decreases. A YouTube spokesperson referred BuzzFeed to comments from CEO Susan Wojcicki in March.
Disinformation hasn’t gone away since he has been off the site, it’s becoming law. Republican state legislators have introduced hundreds of bills around the country that would impose restrictions on voting, many of them in response to Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.
“If Trump were responsible for Trumpism, if you take the power away from Trump, then Trumpism would go away,” Whitney Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University, said. “But Trump was just the guy who was able to harness it at that moment, in that way. So you take him out of commission, and the fact that that worldview and ideology only gets stronger — it really shows you that this was never actually about Trump.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.