Meta’s decision on Donald Trump is looming. Will he return to Facebook?

The ex-president was banned after the Capitol riots in 2021. Will his return rile social media’s ‘cauldron of extremism’?

It’s been a little more than two years since Meta suspended Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram over his actions during the January 6 Capitol riots. Now, a major decision looms – reinstate Trump’s account, or keep him off the platform for good?

It’s a widely-watched decision that will set a new precedent for how social media firms balance free speech with content moderation, especially when it comes to world leaders and other newsworthy individuals.

The announcement – expected later this month stems from a self-imposed deadline. While Trump’s ban was initially indefinite, the company later pledged to revisit whether to reinstate his accounts in January 2023, two years after the suspension began.

The stakes are high, and with Trump announcing his campaign for re-election for 2024, lawmakers, activists and extremism researchers have urged Meta to keep him out. They say the former president’s propensity for misinformation and extremist thinking has only intensified since he left office, and fear he could incite further violence if he is allowed to return.

“Trump’s behavior and language have gotten significantly worse and more extreme since he was first suspended from the Facebook platform,” said James Steyer, the founder and CEO of online safety organization Common Sense Media. “Permitting him to return now would be a serious affront to our democracy and to Meta’s own publicly declared standards. The ban should be made permanent.”

In December, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill urged Meta in a letter to uphold the ban, stating that Trump has continued to spread election misinformation and incite violence on his own social platform, Truth Social.

“For Meta to credibly maintain a legitimate election integrity policy, it is essential that your company maintain its platform ban on former president Trump,” the letter said. “Based on Meta’s own statement on standards for allowing Trump back on the platform, his account should continue to be restricted.”

The looming decision has also reinvigorated a debate that has been raging for years: how much control should private platforms have over public speech? Legislation regarding the monitoring of hate speech, misinformation and violence have long stalled, leading many to call for more action ahead of the 2024 elections.

“The most critical part of this whole drama is that whole democratic societies are now routinely held hostage to a handful of individuals who have been allowed to own critical digital infrastructure – to control the communication spaces through which society now operates,” said Shoshana Zuboff, author of the Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

How we got here

The January 6 riots marked a breaking point in the long-standing debate over social media firms’ role in addressing hate speech and misinformation from public leaders. Many companies allowed Trump to stay on their platforms throughout his time in office despite violations of terms, citing public interest in political figureheads’ speech.

But in the days after the riots, during which he posted in praise of his supporters and condemned Mike Pence even as rioters threatened the then vice-president’s life, Trump was banned from Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and Meta platforms.

The decisions heralded a political reckoning, with Republicans complaining of censorship and others saying the bans were too little too late. Twitter said its own suspension of Trump would be permanent, though the platform reversed course and reinstated his account after Elon Musk took over as CEO last year. YouTube said the ban was indefinite, and Snapchat has yet to reinstate his accounts.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained in a 2021 post that Trump had been barred from the platforms for encouraging violence and that he would remain suspended until a peaceful transition of power could take place. “His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world,” Zuckerberg said.

Shortly after the ban, however, the company punted its decision about whether to remove him permanently to its oversight board: a group of appointed academics and former politicians meant to operate independently of Facebook’s corporate leadership. In May 2021, the board ruled that the penalties should not be “indeterminate” but kicked the final ruling on Trump’s accounts back to Meta, suggesting it decide in six months – two years after the riots.

While Musk unilaterally decided to reinstate Trump after a brief poll on Twitter, Meta has offered more transparency into its decision, publishing public blog posts about the process and stating new measures will be in place to monitor Trump’s activity should he return.

“When the suspension is eventually lifted, there will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr Trump commits further violations in the future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, wrote in a blog post in 2021.

The company has set up an internal working group with employees from across the company to make the final decision, according to CNN. While it was initially slated for 7 January, that date has come and gone, leaving many to speculate on the outcome. Meta did not respond to a request for a comment regarding a timeline.

What would Trump’s return mean?

If Trump does return, many safety advocates acknowledge that the online landscape has changed significantly since his departure. The market is far more fragmented today, with companies such as Parler and Trump’s own social media platform Truth Social marketing themselves as censor-free alternatives for conservatives.

Trump’s reach on Truth Social – where he has 5 million followers – pales in comparison to Twitter, where he had more than 88 million followers at the time of his ban. Still, the former president has pledged to prioritize his accounts there, in part due to an exclusivity agreement that requires him to post all news to the app six hours in advance of any other platform, according to a May filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Nearly two months after his account was reinstated by Musk, the former president has yet to tweet, raising the question of whether he would even return to Facebook if allowed.

Trump, for his part, appears to have soured on his preferred platforms of the past. In an interview with Fox News, Trump suggested he would not be tweeting again. “I am staying on Truth. I like it better, I like the way it works, I like Elon, but I’m staying on Truth,” he said. In the aftermath of his removal from Meta platforms, Trump has been highly critical of Facebook and Zuckerberg. “Sadly, Facebook has been doing very poorly since they took me off,” he wrote on Truth Social. “It has lost $750bn in value and has become very boring.”

Facebook’s user base has also repeatedly declined over the past year, giving Trump – who had 34 million followers at the time of his suspension – less of an impact if he were to return.

“Facebook is significantly less relevant and potent than it was in 2018 and in 2020,” said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of media watchdog Media Matters for America. “Although the harms are not eliminated, its destructive potential is certainly weaker. It matters because it helps inform what to expect.”

Despite the shift, experts say recent events have underscored that online misinformation is as dangerous as ever. Social media helped fuel attacks on government buildings in Brazil this week that mirrored the 2021 Capitol riots, highlighting concerns that not enough has changed in the last two years.

“We can draw a lot of parallels between these situations, and they tie directly back to how these platforms still play a huge role in the distribution of information and incitement of violence,” said Jelani Drew-Davi, campaign director for digital social justice firm Kairos.

And Trump’s own rhetoric has only gotten more extreme since his suspension from Facebook, experts say. At least 350 posts of the more than 2,000 Trump made on Truth Social between April and October 2022 would violate Facebook’s Community Standards and warrant removal, according to researchers at Accountable Tech. Those included 116 posts that endorsed QAnon, a conspiracy movement that has been linked to real-world violence and 239 posts casting doubt on US election validity.

Despite the diminishing power of Facebook as a platform, a Trump return would directly contribute to the continuing mainstream acceptance of dangerous QAnon ideologies and other conspiracy theories, said Carusone.

“With the mass murders in Colorado or in Buffalo, you can see there is already a cauldron of extremism that is only intensified if Trump weighs in,” he said. “When Trump is given a platform, it ratchets up the temperature on a landscape that is already simmering – one that will put us on a path to increased violence.”


Kari Paul in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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