The big platforms are ready to forgive Trump

Our ‘former guy’ is logging back on to Facebook and Instagram. More platforms are sure to follow.

The big platforms are ready to forgive Trump

Edited by Sam Thielman

NICK CLEGG, president of global affairs for Facebook’s parent company Meta, made an announcement last Wednesday: the company will allow former President Donald Trump to return to its Facebook and Instagram platforms in the coming weeks, reversing its decision to ban him following the Capitol riot two years ago.

Facebook and Instagram scrambled after the riot. Tech workers scoured the platforms for praise and encouragement of the insurrection, for calls for follow-up protests, and for other content it believed could escalate an already precarious situation—including the election-denial babble Trump posted in the form of video and text after the attack.

The company locked Trump out of his pages, first for 24 hours, then until the end of his presidential term, then indefinitely.

Leadership at Facebook—which hadn’t yet confusingly invented a parent company named Meta—ultimately kicked the decision over to its Oversight Board, a type of independent counsel meant to provide quasi-judicial oversight of the company, though it is still financed directly by Facebook itself.

In May 2021, the board voted to uphold Trump’s ban and grilled Facebook executives on their handling of the situation. The board’s main gripe? It wasn’t clear how long the ban was supposed to last. Facebook responded with a new set of policies meant to apply to government officials and stated that it would reconsider Trump’s ban two years later. Here’s what the company said at the time:

At the end of this period, we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded. We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest. If we determine that there is still a serious risk to public safety, we will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to re-evaluate until that risk has receded.
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 future, up to and including permanent removal of his pages and accounts.

In the last few weeks, rumblings among the tech press were that Meta was considering reversing Trump’s ban once the two-year window had expired. And on Wednesday, it did just that.

In a statement, Clegg—formerly the deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom under David Cameron—wrote that the company had assessed the current threat landscape with its Crisis Policy Protocol and concluded “the risk has sufficiently receded, and that we should therefore adhere to the two-year timeline we set out.” Clegg also stated the company would be willing to suspend Trump again for a set amount of time if he started acting up again, pointing to a set of policies and systems the company now has in place for scenarios involving politicians.

There are a few points in Meta’s announcement that stand out to me.

One is the assertion that Trump will be subject to the company’s community standards like “any other Facebook or Instagram user.” The idea that Trump will face equal, or even similar, consequences for violating the rules is laughable. He almost certainly will not; Meta explains the special lane he gets to run in within the very same statement.

The other is Meta’s judgment that the risks against our democracy have “sufficiently receded.” In terms of imminent national civil unrest, I agree. But broadly speaking, the threats of anti-democratic movements are as present today, if not more deeply entrenched in our political landscape, than they were on January 5, 2021. Does Meta expect us to pretend that an entire political party hasn’t committed to doing away with democratic rule?

I appreciate optimism, but the fact of the matter is that Trump’s behavior during the lead-up to—and the aftermath of—the Capitol riot defines his modern existence. Nothing has changed in that respect.

In fact, Trump seems to be marinating in spite over his loss in 2020. He is living in his own Groundhog Day, constantly complaining about his defeat and putting himself and his followers through it again and again. Like a Disney World animatronic of himself, he regurgitates a predictable and repetitive script, going through the same set of motions when the lights come up. In this vicious feedback loop, he has become only more intense and conspiratorial, even snuggling up to his QAnon followers. Trump is still constantly saying and doing the things online that were initially cited to justify his bans.

It’s great if Meta thinks it’s better equipped to handle him now, but it’s not clear why they think that.

All of that said, I still have mixed feelings about the situation overall. Whether or not you loathe Trump, it’s hard to forget the monstrous display of unchecked power Facebook and other social media platforms made when they banned Trump from the popular internet in the span of a week. I have argued before that the wave of moderation actions after the riot likely played some role in preventing would-be follow up attacks.

It was the right call at the time, but that didn’t make it any less unsettling to watch.

A populace should have ready access to its civic leaders, no matter how odious those leaders are. It doesn’t matter how much any of us hates them, those leaders will dictate policies that will affect the world around us. Knowing what they are saying and advocating is the first step in an informed decision-making process. When a company steps in to interfere in that dynamic, it feels awfully sketchy. (I have a very different perspective on non-public people, like the waves of neo-Nazis Elon Musk has made sure to allow back to Twitter.)

I would encourage people to take an honest look at the world around us. Did de-platforming the former president make a long-term difference in the trajectory of our country’s politics? Political violence is still an urgent problem in America, and extremist movements are still on the hunt for targets, though landscape does look a bit different today.

Without a constant deluge of Trump posts online, each more outrageous than the last, our news media has gradually looked elsewhere and found other voices to fill the Trump void with their own repulsive rhetoric. The bans deprived Trump of a platform, and that reduced the temperature, but that cooling period was temporary, and there are other reactionaries who aren’t Trump. No single ban or de-platforming is going to change the bigger picture in the long term. Trump was not the biggest problem; he was a convenient vehicle.

Charlie Warzel argued at The Atlantic that neither Facebook or Trump have the same cultural worth as they did years ago when the decision to ban Trump was made. He made some points that I think are worth consideration:

Facebook’s ad business was kneecapped last year by changes Apple made to limit tracking on its devices. It faces steep competition from insurgent apps such as TikTok. And there is a sense, looking at the company’s transparency reports, which detail the most popular content on its platform, that Facebook has become a vast wasteland of recycled memes and scammy, spammy clickbait.
Meanwhile, Trump’s 2024 campaign has been, to date, almost nonexistent. His kickoff announcement was roundly mocked as “low energy,” and some cable news networks didn’t bother to air it in full. Trump and his team have been sloppy and clearly grasping for relevance. And although I wouldn’t downplay the former president’s chances in the 2024 contest, he certainly doesn’t appear as invincible in primary politics as he once did.

All of this has me second-guessing my gut, which is telling me this is a terrible decision. Surely Trump’s return to mainstream platforms will not bring anything of worth to our politics or our media. In fact, it’s probably just going to introduce further chaos. The world loses nothing by limiting his ability to mass communicate.

But is that enough reason to trust gigantic, often dishonest tech corporations to make world-scale decisions like this? Isn’t there something just a little fucked up about this situation to begin with?

What I do know is that I’m glad this wasn’t my call to make. Following Meta and Twitter’s reversals, we can reasonably expect other platforms like YouTube to start weighing similar decisions in the near future. The question, then, will be which ones Trump chooses, and how effectively he uses it.

Watching, reading, listening

  • Pat Finnerty’s YouTube channel is an excellent spot to watch a guitar-head rip awful songs into tiny shreds. Finnerty is exceptionally talented in longform videos and I appreciate that he avoids typical YouTube clickbait tropes that seem to ruin every hobbyist community on the platform.
  • After a hiatus, I’m finishing up Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper. It’s a well-argued critique of capitalist consumerism culture through an environmentalism lens. This book has helped me be conscious of my own consumerist tendencies, which in addition to saving me money has helped me appreciate what I already have.
  • I am very late to this party, but I’ve been going through the Knocked Loose discography lately. They’ve got a pretty hard and heavy music style, so this recommendation is probably not for everyone!

The hardened poster’s mindset