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Facebook Outsources Decision On The Future Of Trump's Account To An Independent Panel

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now that the transfer of power here in Washington is complete, social media companies need to decide whether they will continue to ban Donald Trump. At Facebook, an independent panel is considering that question. Facebook suspended Trump's account indefinitely hours after a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6. In a post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risks of allowing Trump to continue using Facebook in his remaining days in office were simply too great. Nick Clegg is Facebook's vice president for global affairs and communications. And he joins us to talk about this decision. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NICK CLEGG: Thanks for inviting me onto your program.

SHAPIRO: Why hand over this decision about the future of Trump's Facebook account to an independent board? Why not own it and take responsibility for it yourselves?

CLEGG: Well, we certainly take responsibility for the decision we took on January the 7 to indefinitely suspend Donald Trump's access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts. And we believe we took the right decision. We think it was entirely justified by the unprecedented circumstances on that day.

But there has been, in my view, legitimate commentary, not only here in the U.S., but, crucially, from leaders around the world as well, from everyone ranging from, you know, Chancellor Angela Merkel to the president of Mexico. And many of those leaders and other commentators have said, look, they might agree with the steps we took, but they worry about the - what they view as unaccountable power of private companies making big decisions about political speech.

And we agree with them. We think it would be much better if there were democratically agreed standards by which we could take these decisions. But they don't exist at the moment. And that's why we created this independent oversight board, made up of figures from journalism, academia and ex-politicians - this oversight board - precisely, a bit like a court, to scrutinize actions we take and decide in a thoughtful way whether we got it right or not. And that's what we're asking them to do. And their decision, by the way, will be binding on us.

SHAPIRO: Now, their decision on Donald Trump will be binding. But you've also asked them for broader guidance on how to handle other political leaders who make incendiary posts on Facebook. That recommendation is not binding. And so what are you hoping to learn from that?

CLEGG: Well, as you no doubt know, the whole issue of the attitude of social media companies to political speech and how political speech plays out in our platform is a very fraught issue. The attitude we have traditionally taken as a company is this - that in open democracies, it isn't really for a private company to vet everything that politicians say - the good, the bad and the ugly - and that voters should have as much access as possible to what politicians say so that they can make up their own mind at election time.

There are, of course, limits to that. And we have policies on hate speech and incitement to violence. And it's precisely those policies, by the way, which were violated by former President Donald Trump and the reason we have indefinitely suspended his access to his account in the way that we have. But it's a major debate about whether we've drawn the lines in the right place. Some people think we should be more aggressive. Others think we should be more permissive.

SHAPIRO: As you know, Facebook has been accused of a double standard - suspending Trump's account for inciting violence, but not taking the same action against other world leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Can you explain why Facebook has taken different approaches to those world leaders and if the inconsistency is something that you're hoping to address with this recommendation from the board?

CLEGG: Well, I first - I wouldn't want your question to leave anyone with the impression that we don't take action against world leaders. We've taken a number of posts down from President Bolsonaro related to COVID, for instance. And look, the touchstone for us - the touchstone principle for us - and people can agree or disagree with it - is this - is where we feel there is speech on our platform where there is a link to an impending risk of real-world violence, then we act - then we act.

SHAPIRO: Well, but the question is, do you act on the specific post or do you act on the account? Because Facebook had flagged and even taken down Trump posts before suspending the account. And while you have flagged and taken down posts about COVID-19 by world leaders, you have not suspended other world leaders' accounts.

CLEGG: Right, exactly. And what we explained in this instance was that the reason we took this unprecedented step of suspending Donald Trump's access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts was because we felt that what was happening was jeopardizing the peaceful transition of power. And that is why we were very explicit that the indefinite ban was indefinite, but was most definitely in place for at least two weeks until we had the inauguration of yesterday out of the way because we felt there was a real danger, not just to the events that occurred on January 6, but to the wider peaceful, smooth, democratic transfer of power. And that is why in other instances, we might remove content posts, but not suspend the account altogether.

By the way, we block or remove accounts all the time. I mean, I think, in fact, millions of accounts every day. There are plenty of circumstances in which we do so. But when it comes to a political leader, we felt the reason why this was so unusual was because we felt it was interfering and it was deliberately being orchestrated in a way in order to interfere with a peaceful transition of power.

SHAPIRO: Nick Clegg is Facebook's vice president for global affairs and communications. Thank you for speaking with us.

CLEGG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.