UPDATE: Jan. 25, 5:28 p.m. EST ― Meta announced Wednesday it would end Donald Trump’s suspension from Facebook and Instagram “in the coming weeks” but that it would institute “new guardrails” to penalize Trump for repeat violations.
In the two days following the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, both Facebook and Twitter removed former President Trump from their platforms, citing the danger his posts posed to the peaceful transfer of power between U.S. presidents.
The timer on Trump’s Facebook suspension officially ended earlier this month, but leaders at Meta‚ which is now the name of Facebook’s parent company, have yet to announce whether the former president will be allowed back on the platform.
Katie Harbath, who worked at Facebook for 10 years, most recently as the director of the company’s public policy team, resigned seven weeks after the Capitol riot. But on the phone with HuffPost last week, she admitted she’s somewhat envious of the power her former employer now holds.
“How many people get to actually tackle these types of issues, and to be in the decision-making space, versus just sharing their thoughts in the cheap seats?” Harbath, now an independent consultant and senior adviser at the International Republican Institute, wondered aloud.
“How many people get to actually tackle these types of issues, and to be in the decision-making space, versus just sharing their thoughts in the cheap seats?”
Similarly, under its previous leadership, Twitter permanently suspended Trump after the Capitol attack, citing concerns that his posts would inspire further violence. Trump was a prolific Twitter user: After joining Twitter in 2009, he sent 57,000 tweets, most of which came during the 2016 campaign and his presidency. His most notable post came in December 2020, when he told supporters that his Jan. 6 rally would “be wild!”
One thing is clear: Trump hasn’t changed over the past two years. He has never acknowledged the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency and has made no apology for the mob he summoned to Washington, D.C., two years ago, despite the violent coup attempt that followed. In fact, he has publicly sympathized with rioters who had their “lives ruined,” promising, “This situation will be fully rectified after 2024 Election.” He has explicitly promised pardons in the past to the same group.
Yet the stage is set for a likely mainstream social media comeback. Shortly after buying Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted a poll to his followers and ― contrary to his pledge to establish an independent panel for such decisions ― promptly reinstated Trump’s account, citing the results. Trump is still wrapped up in an exclusivity agreement with Truth Social, the social media platform he created, but NBC News and Rolling Stone have reported he’s already planning his first tweets back on the platform.
And in an interview with Fox News, Trump confirmed an NBC News report that his campaign had petitioned Meta to restore his account access as well. A Meta spokesperson told NBC News last week that the company would announce a decision “in the coming weeks.” Meta did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In other words, after two years of his absence, the platforms that formed the foundation of Trump’s political success are opening the door for his return. But times have changed, both for Trump and the platforms he employed in his rise to power. Does Trump still wield the massive social media influence he once held?
‘Lots Of Reasons To Remove Him’
In the most urgent sense, Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts matter because of their reach: Trump has fewer than 5 million followers on Truth Social, compared to more than 87 million on Twitter and 34 million on Facebook. Even accounting for some inevitable bot followers, that’s a significant following, and Trump has used those platforms for ill in the past.
“He was removed because he helped instigate, mobilize and lead an attempted overthrow of the U.S. government using social media,” said Khadijah Costley White, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
White also noted Trump’s prolific lies on social media, as well as his posts about his political opposition being killed. Researchers have found correlations between Trump’s bigoted tweets and anti-Muslim hate crimes, as well as between Trump attacks on Twitter and increased levels of severe toxicity and threats toward his targets.
“There were a lot of reasons to remove him,” White said. “The question for the social media companies is, how have any of those been addressed? And they really haven’t been addressed in any way.”
For its part, Meta has laid out some ground rules: In June 2021, Meta’s president for public affairs, Nick Clegg, said Trump’s potential reinstatement would depend on whether it posed “a serious risk to public safety.”
“There will be a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr. Trump commits further violations in future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts,” Clegg said.
The statement did not address the primary benefit Trump derived from his Facebook account: money. As a candidate, Trump used the platform to draw supporters to rallies and build his war chest.
Former top Trump campaign aide Brad Parscale told “60 Minutes” in 2017, “was the highway which his car drove on.” And Meta’s chief technology officer, Andrew Bosworth, later wrote of the 2016 election that Facebook could be credited with Trump’s election ― “because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.”
“I think Trump wants to get back on Facebook because he needs it for fundraising and building up an email list,” Harbath said. “My gut is, first and foremost, this is money.”
Twitter played a parallel role by giving Trump a direct line to the media. As the political journalist Peter Hamby argued a decade ago after observing the media habits of the reporters on Mitt Romney’s campaign bus, “Twitter is the central news source for the Washington-based political news establishment.” Over the years, the platform has served as a public newsroom of sorts: the first place to advertise big scoops, and in many cases a source of material for the next story.
Just as he cultivated tabloid reporters during his early days as a New York City real estate investor, Trump knew how to manage the Twitter-based press corps by giving them what they wanted ― spectacle and outrage.
“Propaganda works best at the intersection of information, entertainment and persuasion, and Trump is a consummate entertainer, he’s very effective at highjacking human attention,” said Renee Hobbs, a longtime professor of media literacy education at the University of Rhode Island. “His return to social media will be a spectacle extraordinaire that journalists will find it hard to look away from, and therefore report on … and amplify his insanity to the general public.”
Hobbs paraphrased Noam Chomsky on propaganda: “People think that propaganda is for the masses, but actually, it’s for the elites. The elites are the ones who need to be fed a constant stream of propaganda, because they’re the thought-leaders who shape the masses. Trump understands that really well.”
‘More Irrelevant To Politics’
Ironically, Trump is considering rejoining Facebook and Twitter at a moment when all three actors have hit a lull.
“Overall, Facebook is becoming more irrelevant to politics in some ways, at least in the U.S.,” Harbath said.
Ironically, then, Facebook’s decision on Trump’s fate may be most important for the other world leaders, and would-be coup plotters, who may use the platform to organize and incite their followers.
“I think the question of whether or not Trump should be platformed is really a larger question about what our political discourse and debate should look like right now,” White said. “And not just on social media, but on television and in newspapers as well. What does it mean to platform these folks who are spreading lies and encouraging violence?”
Harbath, for her part, leans toward letting the former president back on the platform. First, she says, because of the message it would send abroad if an American company shuts out a legitimate presidential contender from its platform, and second, because Facebook’s censorship policies are focused on the threat of imminent violence, not incitement or other more indirect threats. She suggested the company consider other restrictions on Trump’s content, including potentially limiting its presence on users’ news feeds.
Either way, she said, it won’t be an easy decision.
“It’s going to be precedent-setting,” Harbath said. “This is not going to be the closing of a book; this is going to be a starting of a new chapter of questions about how world leaders and politicians in government should be handled online. I think this will be a really monumental decision that people look back on.”