FACEBOOK HAS answered at long last whether former president Donald Trump may return to its platform with a resounding: “Maybe.” After the company’s oversight board declined to rule on the case last month, Facebook on Friday suspended the former leader for two years, at the end of which experts will help assess whether the threat to safety has ebbed. This conclusion to a prolonged and sometimes tortured process is as reasonable as it is anticlimactic.
The reality remains that no one is preventing Mr. Trump from speaking, except perhaps Mr. Trump himself. The real-estate magnate reportedly asked his team this week to shutter his comeback blog after a mere 29 days, but until his concerns about mockery over poor readership nipped the project in its infancy, anyone was free to read it. This is not a matter of government censorship, but rather of a private company’s decision on whether to allow and amplify his comments. Thankfully, the controversy over a single person’s account looks likely to push Facebook to make such decisions more responsibly and transparently for all users.
The firm’s ruling on the erstwhile commander in chief himself is sound. With falsehoods and rabble-rousing, he provoked an armed and deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. His speech was proven to be dangerous in the real world. But there’s also value in voters knowing what a potential candidate in a future election says and does. Facebook can now consider that quandary after enough time has passed that the danger may have decreased.
These principles will apply to all political figures in times of unrest, and they’ll consider the context surrounding any offending comments: whether, for instance, an election is underway. Politicians also will no longer be allowed to violate Facebook standards on inflammatory speech simply because their comments are presumed newsworthy. Instead, Facebook will evaluate all those comments individually, considering for instance whether the speech relates to governance and whether it occurs in a country with a generally free press. The allowance for newsworthiness, as before, gets scrapped when there’s a likelihood of real-world harm. The presumption is that Mr. Trump may resume posting on Facebook in two years, but he will trigger a series of escalating sanctions that end in permanent removal should he step afoul again.
Facebook has recognized, now, that people have an interest in hearing from their leaders and would-be leaders, but also that those leaders have the ability to do the most damage. It is a difficult balancing test, for sure, and Facebook has, as ever, given itself plenty of discretion. But at least it has also given itself a clearer rubric to grade on. The presumption should be toward more speech, not less. But a presumption can’t be a blank check.