Trump and Facebook: The platform is trying to have it both ways

On January 7, 2021, the day after rioters stormed the Capitol, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram—which was not then, but is now, known as Meta—suspended Donald Trump’s accounts on those platforms, because, the company said, there was a risk that he would encourage further violence. Meta suspended Trump’s accounts indefinitely, but, as I wrote for CJR at the time, the company’s Oversight Board, an arms-length body of advisors that reviews Meta’s content decisions, said a few months later that this was arbitrary, since Meta did not then have a detailed policy for suspensions of public figures. The board advised Meta to come up with one, and the company subsequently said that it would review Trump’s suspension in two years. Last week, with its time up, Meta announced that it would reinstate Trump’s accounts at some point “in the coming weeks.” They appear to have been restored already, although Trump has yet to post. (He has an exclusivity deal with his own social network, Truth Social, but is reportedly planning a return to Twitter and Facebook). At time of writing, the most recent post on his Facebook page is from January 6, 2021, asking everyone at the Capitol to “remain peaceful.”

Last week, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs (and a former deputy prime minister of the UK), wrote in a blog post that the company believes that “open debate and the free flow of ideas are important values,” and that the public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying, “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Clegg said that Meta had gone through an elaborate process to “assess whether the serious risk to public safety that existed in January 2021” had receded, including an evaluation of the current environment according to the company’s Crisis Policy Protocol, a process by which it tries to “assess on and off-platform risks of imminent harm and respond with specific policy and product actions”, along with “expert assessments on the current security environment.” The conclusion? That the risk had receded. Not that Meta is giving Trump carte blanche on his return. His accounts will henceforth be subject to what Clegg called “new guardrails,” including restrictions on posts that might contribute to “the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election.”

Clegg’s post, however, didn’t say anything about what would happen should Trump delegitimize a past election, which is something that he does all the time—and a Meta spokesperson subsequently confirmed to CNN’s Oliver Darcy that the company will allow Trump to post about the 2020 election without consequences. And, since Trump is now a candidate, his account will not be not subject to fact-checking by Meta, a decision the company made even before allowing his return, also according to CNN. Charlie Warzel, of The Atlantic, writes that Trump “has offered zero evidence that he changed during his social-media exile” and will likely use Facebook to whip up partisan resentment upon his return. If anything, Warzel argues, Trump’s posts on Truth Social suggest that he “has become more erratic, angry, and conspiratorial.”

Melissa Ryan pointed out, in her CtrlAltRightDelete newsletter, that just last month, Trump called, on Truth Social, for his immediate reinstatement as president, and asked for the Constitution to be suspended so that this could happen. The New York Times reports that since he launched Truth Social in February of last year, Trump has also shared hundreds of posts promoting various QAnon conspiracy theories. “I don’t think anybody should reasonably expect him to be any different if he’s back on Facebook and Twitter,” Jared Holt, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told the Times. “When it comes to spreading conspiracy theories, Trump is the big tuna.”

Others agree that Trump is unlikely to stay within Clegg’s guardrails. Casey Newton wrote, in his Platformer newsletter, about a number of potential scenarios that could result from Trump’s reinstatement, with “the most plausible, given Trump’s pathological lack of restraint” being that “he returns to posting on Twitter; he cross-posts those tweets to Facebook; those post violate Facebook’s community standards, and he triggers a set of escalating suspensions that get him suspended for another two years and leave us back at square one.” (Twitter also banned Trump in the wake of the insurrection, but restored his access last year after Elon Musk acquired the company.) And Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and writer for Lawfare, noted in his newsletter that Trump “is a living, breathing, walking Community Standards violation.”Sign up for CJR’s daily email

Some observers suspect that Meta’s decision was based on considerations beyond a philosophical commitment to free speech. Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil-rights group Color of Change, told the Times that he believes that Meta’s decision was primarily economic. “Corporations like Facebook have continued to find ways to profit off Trump even as they’ve condemned him,” Robinson said. “It’s not just that they let Donald Trump back on their platform, it’s that they benefit from it.” (Trump spent at least eighty-nine million dollars to advertise on Facebook and Instagram during the 2020 election. His campaign was not prevented from buying Facebook ads even after his account was suspended.) Rick Hasen, director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project, wrote at Slate, meanwhile, that Meta’s decision to reinstate Trump is not the result of any true examination of the continued threat he poses to American democracy, “but a political calculation [given that] Meta executives were already threatened with being hauled before House committees to answer to spurious calls of ‘censorship’” now that Republicans control the chamber.

Not everyone is opposed to Meta’s decision: Jameel Jaffer, the executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement that the company did the right thing, “not because the former president has any right to be on the platform but because the public has an interest in hearing directly from candidates for political office. It’s better if the major social media platforms err on the side of leaving speech up, even if the speech is offensive or false.” Similarly, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times that Meta’s decision was “the right call,” because Trump is a political figure and the public is interested in hearing him speak. Others argued that, even if Meta’s decision was wrong, the repercussions are likely to be mild because neither Trump nor Facebook are as powerful as they used to be. “There is something underwhelming—stale, even—about the news,” Warzel wrote, noting the “mutual decay of both Trump and Facebook.” Facebook, he argued, has become “a vast wasteland of recycled memes and scammy, spammy clickbait,” while Trump’s 2024 campaign has so far been “almost nonexistent.”

Whether or not its power has dimmed, Meta seems to want to have it both ways when it comes to Trump. The benefits associated with a following like Trump’s—he currently has thirty-four million Facebook followers—can be significant, even if he might post unhinged conspiracy theories; ultimately, his 2024 campaign will likely drive a lot of engagement. But the company also wants us to think that it cares about its social responsibilities, and that it only reinstated Trump after a vaguely defined process that somehow proved that the societal risks associated with his return are low. In all likelihood, these two imperatives cannot both remain true. Will Meta be as quick to suspend Trump again, if/when he undermines the 2024 election or otherwise breaches the company’s standards? Perhaps. But by the time it does so, the damage might already be in the rearview mirror—just as it was on January 7, 2021.

Note: This post was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

16 Replies to “Trump and Facebook: The platform is trying to have it both ways”

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