Facebook’s Oversight Board will weigh in on rules for politicians

A ruling on Donald Trump's suspension will also look into the treatment of other politicians.

ANKARA, TURKEY - MAY 07: Facebook logo is seen on a smartphone as Oversight Board at the background in Ankara, Turkey on May 07, 2020. (Photo by Hakan Nural/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As Facebook’s “Supreme Court” gets ready to rule on whether Donald Trump’s suspension should be permanent, the board will also tackle some of the thornier policy issues about how Facebook handles the accounts of elected officials.

Speaking on a panel at SXSW, Rachel Wolbers, public policy manager for the Oversight Board, said that in addition to the “binary” decision about whether or not to reinstate Trump's account, the board will also look at Facebook’s policies around elected officials more broadly. The comments, which come ahead of the official decision that’s expected in the coming weels, offers additional insight on how the board views its most high-profile case yet.

“When Facebook referred this case to us, there are really two issues,” Wolbers said. “First, we're looking at that binary issue… whether the account should stay down, or if we should reinstate former President Donald Trump's public page. And then we will also be looking at the world leaders policy … It's actually an elected officials policy, it applies the same, from the President of the United States to your local school board official.”

Facebook provides special consideration to the accounts of elected officials. For example, statements from politicians are exempt from the company’s fact-checking policies. And in the past, Facebook has cited “newsworthiness” as a reason for allowing Trump and other politicians to make statements that would otherwise break its rules.

While it’s not clear which aspects of these policies may be addressed by the Oversight Board, Wolbers suggested the group does plan to address the question of whether Trump should be allowed back on Facebook if he runs for office again.

“What's really interesting… you start to become an elected official once you've filed paperwork to run for office,” Wolbers said of Facebook’s rules. “So there is an interesting thought right now with the Donald Trump account. No, he's no longer an elected official, but should he decide to run again for office, he would then be elevated into that elected official category. And so we will be looking at some of these nuanced policies.”

That approach is in line with previous decisions made by the Oversight Board. In addition to ruling on individual content moderation issues, it also has the ability to recommend broader policy changes to Facebook. And while Facebook isn’t required to implement those changes, it is required to issue a response to the suggestions and explain its position.

For example, after the first round of ruling and policy recommendations from the Oversight Board, Facebook ended up agreeing to several changes. Notably, it changed Instagram’s rules to allow for “health-related nudity,” as a result of a case involving a post about breast cancer awareness. The company also agreed to make its policies around health misinformation more clear, which resulted in more specific vaccine misinformation rules.

Of course, the issues surrounding the Trump decision are even more contentious than rules around nudity or health misinformation. The board’s ruling will be controversial regardless of what it decides, and could have far-reaching implications for all politicians that use the social network. But that’s also a big part of why Facebook created the Oversight Board in the first place — to delegate the most difficult decisions to an “independent” organization.

“There's also a strong value within Facebook — I think I think many Americans probably agree with this — that we want to know what our elected officials are saying,” Wolbers said. “There's also a very good argument to be made that an elected official has other ways to communicate without using social media. They have a blog, they have press statements; the press covers them. We will be wading into these very complex issues.”