Facebook oversight board upholds Trump ban

Facebook’s independent oversight board yesterday upheld the platform’s ban on former US president Donald Trump while ordering further review of the case, in a decision with a potentially far-reaching impact on the regulation of online speech. 

The board, whose decisions are binding on the leading social network, said Trump “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible” with his comments regarding the January 6 rampage by his supporters at the US Capitol.

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“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the board said after its review.

But the panel also ruled that “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”

“Within six months of this decision, Facebook must reexamine the arbitrary penalty it imposed on January 7 and decide the appropriate penalty,” the review board said in its written opinion.

The case had been intensely followed for its repercussions for social networks seeking to curb misinformation and abusive content while remaining open to political discourse.

Trump was suspended from Facebook and Instagram after he posted a video during the deadly January 6 storming of the Capitol in which he told his supporters: “We love you, you’re very special.”

The US leader was banned permanently by Facebook the following day, and he was taken off other platforms including Twitter and YouTube.

Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows, responding to the decision, said it would have a chilling effect on free speech and that Facebook needed to be regulated or broken up.


Saudi Arabia may bar hajj pilgrims for second year

Saudi Arabia is considering barring overseas pilgrims from the annual haj for the second year running as Covid-19 cases rise globally and worries grow about the emergence of new variants, two sources familiar with the matter said yesterday. Such a move would restrict the pilgrimage to Makkah, a once in a lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, to Saudi nationals and residents of the kingdom who were vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 at least months prior to attending.

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UP Panchayat Elections: Warning signs for BJP

The results of the recently-held panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh do not look good for the ruling BJP led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath ahead of state assembly election to be held next year. 

The results which came after the party suffered a defeat in West Bengal state assembly polls.

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Should the BJP begin to panic now on account of the panchayat election results? Has the Covid bug finally bitten the voters in India’s most-populous state, a state that accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats and will vote for its next government 10 months from now?

The BJP has managed only eight of a possible 40 seats in Ayodhya, the temple town where Yogi lavishes much attention. Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) managed 24 seats, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) landed four, and independents six.

In Mathura, the BJP won only eight of the 33 district panchayat seats, while the BSP emerged as the biggest gainer with 13 seats. In Varanasi, which has twice elected PM Modi to the Lok Sabha, the Samajwadi Party has won 15 seats, the BSP plus independents 17 and the BJP just 8.

In the Panchayat polls, candidates are supported by political parties but do not contest as their representatives.

But, as the results show, there are enough warning signs for BJP in UP, a core state for saffron party. Out of 3050 seats in the polls, BJP managed to get 599 seats. SP got 790 seats while BSP secured 354 seats. The Congress also won 60 seats. And the rest- 1247 seats- went to independents. 

That is a lot in a state where the BJP swept the last assembly election in 2017 with 40% of the vote and 321 of a possible 403 seats. 


Germany eyes to become carbon neutral by 2045

The German government yesterday said it would set more ambitious targets to reduce CO2 emissions after a landmark ruling by the country’s top court declared a flagship climate protection law “insufficient”. The government now expects to slash emissions by 65 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and by 88 percent by 2040, with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045, five years earlier than previously expected, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said at a press conference in Berlin.

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UK eyes third Covid jab for people over 50

Everyone aged over 50 in Britain will be offered a third Covid-19 vaccination jab in the autumn in an attempt to eradicate the threat from the infection entirely by Christmas, The Times newspaper reported. 

Trials of two options are under way, supervised by Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, the newspaper said.

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The first involves vaccines specifically modified to tackle new variants. The second is for a third shot of one of the three versions already in use: Pfizer-BioNTech , Oxford-AstraZeneca or Moderna, the newspaper reported.

A total of more than 34.6 million people in Britain have been given a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine.

Britain, which has a population of 67 million, has deals for over 510 million doses of eight different COVID-19 vaccines, some of which remain under development.


US ex-cop convicted of Floyd murder seeks new trial

Derek Chauvin, the white ex-policeman convicted of murdering African-American man George Floyd, asked Tuesday for a new trial on claims of jury and prosecution misconduct. The 45-year-old — who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes in Minneapolis — faces up to 40 years in prison after being found guilty last month in a case that prompted a national reckoning on racial injustice and police brutality. Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson argued that his client did not get a fair trial due to publicity around the case, court and prosecution errors, as well as “race-based pressure” on the jury.

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Space aged

If a bottle of Petrus 2000 that Christie’s is selling tastes out of this world it might be because it aged for 14 months aboard the International Space Station. 

Christie’s hopes the bottle, now up for grabs in a private sale, will fetch $1 million, which would make it the most expensive wine ever sold.

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The bottle is one of a batch of 12 that European startup Space Cargo Unlimited sent into orbit as part of research into how food and drink matures in space.

The wine spent almost 440 days in space, or the equivalent of 300 trips to the Moon, Space Cargo Unlimited Nicolas Gaume said in a press release.

It left for the ISS on November 2, 2019 in a spacecraft known as a Cygnus capsule and returned on January 14, 2021 aboard a Dragon capsule manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

At the end of a blind tasting, the researchers noted “remarkable differences in the colour, aroma and taste components,” between the celestial bottles and equivalents which had remained on earth.

The sale is expected to smash the record price for a standard 750 ml bottle of wine. The most expensive was a 1945 Romanee-Conti Burgundy which sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $558,000 in 2018. 


Major Taliban offensive: US warplanes help Afghan forces

American warplanes were backing Afghan forces against a major Taliban offensive in the south of the country even as the US military pressed on with a troop withdrawal, officials said yesterday. 

Fierce fighting has erupted in Helmand province since the weekend, when the US military formally began withdrawing its remaining troops.

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They were supposed to have been pulled out by May 1 under a deal struck with the Taliban last year, but Washington pushed back the date to September 11 — a move that has angered the insurgents.

“The heavy US air strikes against the Taliban positions stopped them from advancing towards Lashkar Gah,” said Atiqullah, a local government official, referring to the provincial capital.

“The bombing was intense. I have never seen such bombardment in several years.”

Attaullah Afghan, head of the Helmand provincial council, told AFP Taliban forces had made advances, but government forces had “retaken some of these areas”.

A US defence official confirmed air support was backing government forces.

Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes and taken refuge in Lashkar Gah in the face of the new fighting, officials and residents say.

Afghan government officials said dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in fighting on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah as they attempted to overrun checkpoints. The Taliban, meanwhile, said scores of Afghan security personnel had died.

Fighting was also reported in other provinces. 


Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong gets another 10 months in jail for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong will face an additional 10 months in jail for participating in an unauthorized assembly on June 4 last year to commemorate the 1989 crackdown on protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Joshua Wong, 24, pictured above in December, was already in prison due to other illegal assembly convictions. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong will face an additional 10 months in jail for participating in an unauthorized assembly on June 4 last year to commemorate the 1989 crackdown on protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

It was the first time the vigil was banned in the global financial hub, with police citing coronavirus restrictions on group gatherings, as it did for all demonstrations last year. It is expected to face a similar fate this year.

Still, tens of thousands of people lit candles across the city in what was largely a peaceful event last June, bar a brief skirmish with riot police in one neighbourhood.

Commemorations of the Tiananmen crackdown are banned in mainland China, but Hong Kong traditionally held the largest vigils globally every year, having been promised certain freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, including rights of expression and assembly.

Wong, 24, already in prison due to other illegal assembly convictions and among 47 activists charged under the city’s sweeping national security law, was sentenced in the District Court on Thursday.

Chow Hang-tung, left, the vice-chairwoman of Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China speaks to media Thursday after activist Joshua Wong was jailed. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

A 15-month sentence was reduced to 10 due to his guilty plea.

Judge Stanley Chan also sentenced Lester Shum, Jannelle Leung and Tiffany Yuen to between four and six months. Twenty others facing similar June 4 Tiananmen Square anniversary charges are due to appear in court on June 11.

“Freedom of assembly is not unlimited,” Chan said.

The anniversary struck an especially sensitive nerve in the former British colony last year, falling just as Beijing prepared to introduce new security legislation which punishes anything China sees as subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Show respect for Communist Party, says Carrie Lam

This year, the June 4 Tiananmen Square anniversary event is particularly awkward for Beijing, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party.

When asked whether commemorating the victims of Tiananmen would violate the new security law, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam last month said it was important to show respect to the Party.

China has never provided a full account of the 1989 Tiananmen Square violence. The death toll given by officials was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have died.

Wong was given a 13-1/2 month sentence in December over an unlawful anti-government rally on June 21, 2019 and an additional four-month sentence for participating in an unauthorized protest in October 2019 while also breaking a government law against wearing face masks.

While in prison Wong was arrested in January on suspicion of breaking the new security law, which was introduced in July 2020, by taking part in an unofficial vote to pick opposition candidates for a since-postponed election, which authorities describe as a “vicious plot” to “overthrow” the government. 


Facebook creates a fork-in-the-road moment for Trump — and the rest of us

Facebook has created a fork-in-the-road moment for Donald Trump. And for all of us. Whether he gets back his online megaphone is only the first step. The longer-term question raised in a mixed decision by Facebook’s oversight board involves whether, and how, governments regulate key communication tools.

The Facebook Oversight Board has upheld the decision by the social media giant to suspend former U.S. president Donald Trump’s account. It did, however, criticize the company for imposing an ‘indefinite suspension’ outside its normal policies. 3:24

We’ve arrived at a consequential moment for Donald Trump, his political power, and his potential ambitions for an electoral comeback. 

It’s also consequential for all of us. 

A group created by Mark Zuckerberg to be the so-called Supreme Court of Facebook just handed down a ruling of three-dozen pages with potentially far-reaching implications for the rules of communication in modern democracies.

The short takeaway from Wednesday’s decision: Facebook was right to ban Trump from its platform for promoting the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the decision followed international human rights law.

Yet the decision also found fault with Facebook on two important fronts. 

It said the company failed to clearly define the length of Trump’s punishment and urged it declare, within six months, whether and when Trump might be reinstated. 

It also faulted Facebook for not examining its own role in fostering unrest. 

Facebook refuses to discuss own role

The oversight board wanted to investigate whether Facebook’s own algorithms might have promoted the spread of misinformation and extremist content about the 2020 election.

But the company refused to share that information, which made clear not only its own aversion to that topic, but also the limited power of its oversight body and the difference from a real court.

Facebook has been a key tool for former U.S. president Donald Trump. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

History offers sobering examples of how innovations in communications technology, from the printing press to the telegraph, can have a dual effect.

On the one hand they democratize information, with more of it flowing more readily to more people. On the other: They occasionally trigger instability and upheaval.

In a coincidence of timing, on the same day that this oversight board faulted Facebook over election misinformation, officials in Arizona were still busy sifting through ballots from the last election. They’re searching for bamboo fibers in the paper because of one of the many baseless election conspiracy theories that proliferated online said tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots shipped from Asia were stuffed into ballot boxes. 

Social media’s role already promises to become a policy issue in the next U.S. election. 

It highlights two emerging and clashing attitudes to how big tech might be regulated, and expect to hear more in the 2022 congressional midterms.

Two clashing visions on regulation

Republicans call it a free speech issue and vow to crack down on tech companies if they regain congressional power next year.

It’s already begun: Republican state lawmakers in Florida and Texas have bills that would fine or sue tech companies for silencing political speech.

Facebook is more interested in acting like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate.

If they can ban President Trump, all conservative voices could be next.

A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech.


On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats, and tech critics, want regulation targeted elsewhere: algorithms that they say push lies and extremist content, poisoning democracies in the process.

One analyst believes Facebook’s company-appointed board is not the ultimate answer to this modern policy dilemma.

The reason Facebook created the board, said Jameel Jaffer, is to prove it can govern itself and doesn’t need the thing it fears above all else: regulation.

He credited board members for doing a decent job under the circumstances.

“I think it’s a thoughtful decision. And a completely defensible one,” said Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. 

What Facebook means to Trump

The person most directly affected by the ruling is the 45th president of the United States.

Being on Facebook matters to Trump — regardless of whether he chooses to run for president again. 

Facebook didn’t cooperate with one part of the investigation: Was it partly responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and did its own algorithms encourage the spread of election misinformation and extremism? (Leah Millis/Reuters)

It’s a source of political power, a megaphone that amplifies his voice and a magnet for raising money.

Trump’s now-inactive Facebook page has 35 million followers. To put that in context, that’s 10 times the audience of the most-watched prime time show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson’s; 30 times the number of people listening when Trump calls into favourite morning TV show Fox & Friends; 60 times the most popular show on the right-wing Newsmax network.

Trump has lost access to that account, to his Twitter account with nearly as many followers, and to YouTube. 

He’s now resorted to communicating with the public by emailing a subscriber list, where he delivers the sorts of messages each day he’d usually be posting online.

Harder to reach audiences

Trump’s messages aren’t being heard as often lately, according to one pollster.

Morning Consult surveys found 56 per cent of Republican respondents were at least slightly aware of Trump blasting Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in February; only 39 per cent had heard of a similar statement in March; and just 30 per cent in April.

This could start mattering closer to next year’s midterms. 

WATCH | What Apple’s new privacy controls mean for Facebook:

Apple now puts customer privacy concerns front and center, with new software that directly asks users if they want the record of their online activity shared with apps they don’t even use. This could cut into Facebook’s ability to sell ads targeted to your interests, so it’s pushing back. 2:01

Trump’s endorsements have the potential to make and break candidacies in primary contests given his towering popularity among Republican voters.

Look no further than a power struggle playing out this week in Washington for an example of his power to crush, or elevate, people within the Republican Party. 

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney risks being turfed from the party’s congressional leadership. 

That’s not because she votes against party policy, or is insufficiently conservative, as her voting record shows support for her party and its supposed ideology.

The reason Trump and his allies want her gone is she keeps criticizing Trump.

“A warmongering fool,” is what Trump called Cheney in an emailed statement. In different times, he might have tweeted and posted this view on Facebook.

The former president has a choice for her replacement: Elise Stefanik, one of the most liberal elected members of the Republican Party, who is heavily involved in cross-border issues as her district in upstate New York touches the Canadian border. 

In a 2018 interview, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg referred to his goal of creating a quasi ‘Supreme Court’ to oversee the company. We now have its highest-profile judgment to date. (Bill Clark/Pool via Reuters)

But these days she’s gotten a reputation for a willingness to go all-out for Trump, in his impeachment hearings and his effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Which brings us back to the influence of Facebook and the new reality of elections in the social media era.

One professor of speech law says he’s not sure Facebook’s oversight board, which includes a former prime minister of Denmark, should be leaning on the principles of international human rights law to guide speech decisions affecting U.S. politics.

The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7 to suspend then-President Trump from Facebook and Instagram. Trump’s posts during the Capitol riot severely violated Facebook’s rules and encouraged and legitimized violence. https://t.co/veRvWpeyCi


Just like Canadians might want to have their political issues settled by Canadians, Americans might be angry that an international board is making recommendations about who gets banned from Facebook, said Eugene Volokh, a libertarian-leaning professor at UCLA. 

“Imagine that, in 2024, Trump runs again, but is banned again,” he said in an interview. 

“And [imagine] the election goes on with [only] one candidate who is allowed to use this platform that is tremendously important to reaching out to voters … I’m not sure that American voters would perceive that as a free and fair election.”

He said he usually opposes regulatory heavy-handedness but said there’s an argument for regulating online platforms like phone companies, or parcel-delivery services, to prevent discrimination.

Jaffer said the real scrutiny belongs elsewhere — particularly on how social media giants design their algorithms, and the effect they’re having.

Trump’s voice matters in internal Republican politics, and can make or break careers. He’s elevated politicians who voted to overturn the 2020 election result, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. (RNC handout via Reuters)

“Facebook’s algorithms shunt people into echo chambers. They often have the effect of amplifying misinformation,” he said. 

“Facebook’s political ad policies also insulate people from counter-speech — in other words, insulate people from views that are different from their own. And so Facebook, too, bears some responsibility here.”