In the scheme of things, this, specifically, is not a major shift in social platform policy, or in broader approaches to handling inflammatory or incendiary usage by world leaders. But in terms of symbolic, and even iconic gestures, it is significant – and may well have huge implications for US politics, at the least.
Today, Meta has announced that former US President Donald Trump will be allowed to return to Facebook and Instagram, after he was banned from both apps over his posts around the time of the January 6th incident at the Capitol building in 2021.
As explained by Meta:
“Two years ago, we took action in what were extreme and highly unusual circumstances. We indefinitely suspended then-US President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts following his praise for people engaged in violence at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. We then referred that decision to the Oversight Board — an expert body established to be an independent check and balance on our decision-making.”
In response, the Oversight Board called for Meta to implement more structured parameters around how such decisions were made, and how long any resulting suspension would be in place. Based on this, Meta announced a two-year end date for the suspension, with a review to be conducted to assess the risk of reinstatement at that stage. That’s now resulted in Meta’s decision to allow Trump back into its apps.
Which, reportedly, the Trump team has been pushing for in recent weeks.
With a 2024 Presidential campaign in focus, Trump’s legal team sent a letter to Meta last week which requested that Trump be allowed back onto its platforms, in order to give him an equal share of political voice. Whether that influenced Meta’s decision or not is unclear, but now, the gates have been re-opened, which will give Trump and Co. reach to millions of US voters via his Facebook Page and through paid ads.
Which, in itself, is significant. But as noted, it’s not clear as yet as to whether the process has seen Meta establish more definitive guidelines for handling similar situations in the future, and what sorts of penalties it will implement as a result of such actions.
Meta’s Oversight Board has called out this exact detail in its response to Meta’s announcement:
“The Board welcomes that Meta has followed the Board’s recommendations to introduce a crisis policy protocol in order to improve Meta’s policy response to crises, and to undertake an assessment about the current security environment. However, the Board calls on Meta to provide additional details of its assessment so that the Board can review the implementation of the Board’s decision and recommendations in this case, to define varying violation severities by public figures in the context of civil unrest, and to articulate the way that the policy on public figure violations in the context of civil unrest relates to the crisis policy protocol.”
As the Board notes, Meta has updated its approach to such situations, in a new protocol overview for dealing with posts by public figures during times of civil unrest, while Trump specifically, Meta says, will now also face ‘heightened penalties for repeat offenses’.
But the parameters around its decisions as to what constitutes public risk are still not totally clear. Which leaves those decisions in the hands of Meta management, which could still be viewed as a form of political censorship, depending on the case.
And that, ideally, is not what Meta wants:
“As a general rule, we don’t want to get in the way of open, public and democratic debate on Meta’s platforms - especially in the context of elections in democratic societies like the United States. The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying - the good, the bad and the ugly - so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box. But that does not mean there are no limits to what people can say on our platform. When there is a clear risk of real world harm - a deliberately high bar for Meta to intervene in public discourse - we act.”
Meta also says that its ‘default’ is to let people speak, even when what they have to say is ‘distasteful or factually wrong’.
Ideally, Meta would prefer such decisions were made by an overarching regulatory body, which oversees all online platforms, but given the ways in which such a process could be abused, and the variable approaches to such in different regions, that’s a difficult proposition, which may not ever take shape.
As such, Meta is left to implement its own rules around what constitutes potential harm in this context, which it won’t always get right.
But really, there’s no other option, and such cases can only be ruled on, by Meta, as they arise.
So, will Trump come back to Facebook?
Trump’s also-suspended Twitter account was reinstated by Elon Musk back in November, and he hasn’t tweeted as yet – but that’s partly because of Trump’s stake in Truth Social, and his commitment to making that alternative platform work.
Trump Media & Technology Group has over $1 billion sunk into Trump’s own social media app Truth Social, with funding from a range Trump’s top supporters and advocates. A key proviso in that plan is that Trump has committed to posting exclusively Truth, even if his other social accounts are reinstated. There are ways in which Trump could avoid violating this, by, say, posting to Twitter or Facebook several hours after first posting to Truth, but essentially, Trump is at least somewhat locked into making Truth Social his focus.
But that won’t get him the reach or resonance that Facebook can.
Trump has over 34 million followers on Facebook, and Facebook ads have formed a key part of his previous campaigning efforts. Indeed, Trump’s team spent over $20 million on Facebook ads in 2019 alone, and while tweets became his primary weapon of choice for communicating with his audience, Facebook is also a crucial platform for promotion of his agenda.
As such, you can bet that Trump’s team is already strategizing their next Facebook ads push, now that they’re allowed back in the app.
Is that a good thing?
I mean, as Meta notes, people should be able to judge for themselves, but then again, the manipulative, targeted approaches to Facebook ads that Trump’s team has taken in the past do raise even more questions in this respect.
But that’s a whole other argument, and in basic terms, on the facts of the case, it makes sense for Meta to reinstate Trump’s account, and let him back into its apps.