Experts: Donald Trump’s return to Facebook could bring more hate to the platform
In 2021, Donald Trump was banned from a number of social media platforms over his behavior during the January 6 insurrection—Trump’s last ditch attempt to steal an election he resoundingly lost.
Two years later, the world’s biggest arbiter of social discourse, Meta, has announced it will be letting Trump return to its platforms.
The move follows Twitter’s similar decision to rescind a ban enacted in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, but this one carries far more potency—not least because Meta’s apps and platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, have nearly 10 times as many users as Twitter.
“We know that any decision we make on this issue will be fiercely criticized,” wrote Meta’s president for global affairs, Nick Clegg, in his blog post justifying the decision. “Reasonable people will disagree over whether it is the right decision. But a decision had to be made.” Notably, the company’s Oversight Board, an independent body designed to keep Meta’s content moderation decisions honest, neither welcomed nor disapproved of the decision in its own response to the ban lifting.
Trump had been banned for two years in what Clegg calls “an extraordinary decision taken in extraordinary circumstances.” The Meta executive says his company has put in place guidelines that will keep the former president on a tighter leash: It will be closely monitoring what he posts, reserves the rights to limit the reach of his organic posts, and could bar him from using the company’s advertising tools. Such measures might well be needed. In the last week alone, Trump has taken to his own social media platform, Truth Social, to call for the imprisonment of reporters and again falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Little surprise, then, that some analysts are less than enthused about the news. “Meta had no good reason to degrade its service by pandering to the desires of a politician who incited violence with his posts and statements,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. “Once again we see that Mark Zuckerberg has learned nothing from the global assaults on democracy and human rights worldwide—many of which have been amplified by his platforms.”
The decision is all the more baffling for Vaidhyanathan because it comes just weeks after Brazil experienced its own January 6 moment, where supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro tried to reinstate the ex-leader through a violent coup organized on social media, including Facebook. As Brazil’s coup was underway, Meta officially declared the incident “a violating event” as per its terms of service and said it would remove “content that supports or praises these actions.”
Plenty of questions remain about a potential Trump return to Meta platforms. Prime among them: whether he’ll even come back in the first place. Meta said it had not communicated with the former president before making its decision. Trump has so far resisted the temptation to come back to Twitter, even after his ban there was revoked by Elon Musk. “I would be surprised if he posts until [Ron] DeSantis is thoroughly beating him in the polls, and then I suspect he will quickly make us all remember why he was banned in the first place,” suggests Binghamton University professor Jeremy Blackburn, who studies the far right’s online behavior with iDRAMA Lab.
There is also uncertainty about what Trump is legally permitted to post on Facebook: He is believed to have signed an agreement with Truth Social that would give the platform first dibs on any content he chooses to share with the world. One potential workaround for Trump: to utilize Facebook and Instagram mainly as platforms to promote advertising to followers if he were to run in 2024, as he has suggested he would. Trump spent $89 million on Facebook and Instagram ads in the 2020 election campaign.
Even if he weren’t to come back, Meta’s actions have baffled Accountable Tech cofounder and executive director Nicole Gill. “There is absolutely no justification for allowing Donald Trump back on Facebook,” she says. “Two years ago, Meta said it would only reinstate Trump if his presence on the platform no longer carried a threat of violence. Today’s decision reveals that promise for what it was: another empty publicity stunt by a company more concerned with making money than with democracy, safety, or even internal consistency.”
Gill’s cofounder Jesse Lehrich adds: “This decision is tantamount to handing a flamethrower to a serial arsonist and hoping for the best.”