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Facebook said today that Donald Trump’s suspension from the service would last at least two years, keeping the former president off mainstream social media for the 2022 midterm elections, as the company also said it would end a policy of treating posts from politicians differently from those of other users.

The social network said Trump would be eligible for reinstatement in January 2023, before the next presidential election, and it will then look to experts to decide “whether the risk to public safety has receded,” Facebook said.

The company barred Trump from the service after he made comments on social media that rallied his supporters, who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but it had not given a firm timeline about when or if the suspension would end.

“Given the gravity of the circumstances that led to 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,” Nick Clegg, the vice president of global affairs at Facebook, wrote in a company blog post.

If reinstated, Trump would be subject to a set of “rapidly escalating sanctions” if he committed further violations, up to and including the permanent suspension of his account, Facebook said.

Facebook also said it was ending a policy of keeping posts by politicians up by default even if their speech broke its rules.

For years, Facebook and other social media companies such as Twitter had said they would not interfere with political speech because it was in the public interest.

That has now shifted, largely prompted by Trump’s inflammatory social media posts, forcing the companies to take a firmer hand.

That rethinking of how to treat political speech has implications not only for American politics but also for world leaders such as President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who have been active on the platform.

Yet Facebook’s moves, which create a more specific framework for how it handles political figures, are unlikely to satisfy its detractors and may reinforce what some see as the company’s disproportionate power over online speech.

“We know today’s decision will be criticized by many people on opposing sides of the political divide — but our job is to make a decision in as proportionate, fair and transparent a way as possible,” Clegg said. He said the moves were a response to criticism that the company had not provided sufficient insight into its decision-making process, and he said Facebook was putting into place a system of protocols and sanctions to be applied in exceptional cases such as Trump’s.

For Trump, who has been permanently barred on Twitter, Facebook’s action means that he will be muted from the mainstream platforms during at least the 2022 midterm election cycle.

Trump, who before the bans used social media as a megaphone to reach his tens of millions of followers, has found it more difficult to communicate with those supporters — and loom even larger over the Republican primary field.

He started a blog called “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” about a month ago but shut it down this week after it gained little traction.

In an emailed statement, Trump said Facebook’s ruling was “an insult to the record-setting 75M people, plus many others, who voted for us in the 2020 Rigged Presidential Election.”

He added that Facebook should not be allowed to get away with “censoring and silencing” him and others on the platform.

Facebook’s broader shift to no longer automatically exempt speech by politicians from its rules is a stark reversal from a free-speech position that Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, had championed.

In a 2019 address at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg said, “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”

But that stance drew criticism from lawmakers, activists and Facebook’s own employees, who said the company allowed misinformation and other harmful speech from politicians to flow unhindered.

While many academics and activists welcomed Facebook’s changes today as a step in the right direction, they said the implementation of the new rules would be tricky.

The company would likely enter into a complicated dance with global leaders who had grown accustomed to receiving special treatment by the platform, they said.

“This change will result in speech by world leaders being subject to more scrutiny,” said David Kaye, a law professor and former United Nations monitor for freedom of expression. “It will be painful for leaders who aren’t used to the scrutiny, and it will also lead to tensions.”

Countries including India, Turkey and Egypt have threatened to take action against Facebook if it acts against the interests of the ruling parties, Kaye said.

The countries have said they might punish Facebook’s local staff or ban access to the service, he said.

“This decision by Facebook imposes new political calculations for both these global leaders, and for Facebook,” Kaye said.


This article appeared in The New York Times


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