Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.
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Meta is letting its most controversial user — former President Donald Trump — back on Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook and Instagram, along with Twitter, YouTube, and Snap, suspended Trump after the former president praised rioters as they stormed the capitol on January 6, 2021. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained suspending Trump “indefinitely” at the time by saying he had inappropriately used Facebook to incite “violent insurrection” against American democracy.
Two years later, Meta says Trump no longer poses an immediate risk to public safety. On Wednesday, it said it will end the suspension of Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts in the coming weeks. Its decision follows Twitter’s call last month to reverse its permanent ban on Trump.
“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,” Meta president of global affairs Nick Clegg wrote in a company blog post. “But that does not mean there are no limits to what people can say on our platform.”
In the post, Clegg wrote that Meta determined the risk to public safety had “sufficiently receded,” but that Meta would add new guardrails on Trump’s future posts if they contribute to “the sort of risk that materialized on January 6,” such as posts delegitimizing an election or supporting QAnon. The new penalties include Meta limiting the reach of Trump’s posts in Facebook’s feed, restricting access to advertising tools, and removing the reshare button from offending posts. If Trump continues to violate Facebook’s rules, the company could suspend him again for a period between one month and two years.
It’s true that the US is no longer in the middle of a transition of power between presidents, nor is it under the nationwide pandemic lockdowns that had caused political frustration.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is Trump himself. The former president has not recanted any of his election-denying views that rioters said inspired their violence on January 6. He continues to spread false claims that the 2020 election was “rigged,” to attack local election workers whose job it is to count ballots, and to promote conspiracy theories like QAnon. His supporters’ belief that the election was stolen has caused democracy experts, and some three in five Americans, to fear that there could be more violence during the 2024 presidential election.
If Trump actually starts using Facebook again — which seems likely — every time he posts an election lie or veiled threat, or amplifies a dangerous QAnon theory, the company will have to decide if that post violates its rules, and what the consequences will be.
“People will be scrutinizing every single post that Trump puts up,” said Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy at Facebook and Republican political operative who now runs her own tech policy consulting firm, Anchor Change. “Life is going to be hell” for platforms like Facebook if Trump comes back, she added.
Meta had better buckle up. During Trump’s presidency, Facebook faced an employee uprising, a major advertiser boycott, and political backlash from Democratic Party leaders because of Trump’s posts on its platforms. The past two years since Trump’s ban have been a reprieve from having to minimize public fallout over Trump’s posts.
Now Trump is Facebook’s problem again.
Why Trump might actually return to Facebook
For a while, it seemed as if Trump wouldn’t return to mainstream social media even if given the chance. He’s had access to Twitter for a month but still hasn’t tweeted.
That may be because he has a contractual obligation to post to his company’s own social media app. Trump is legally required to post first on Truth Social before he cross-posts to other social media platforms (although there is a major exception for “political messaging”), per filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But now Trump — who last month declared his candidacy for president in 2024 — is reportedly seeking to get out of his exclusivity contract with Truth Social, and planning his return to both Twitter and Facebook. Last week, Trump’s legal team wrote a letter to Meta to request a meeting with company leadership and to urge the company to lift his suspension.
While Twitter may be Trump’s platform of choice for attracting media attention and sharing his unfiltered thoughts, Facebook is by far the most powerful social media app for running a political campaign. That’s because of the sheer size of Facebook’s active user base — nearly 3 billion people — compared to over 350 million on Twitter and 2 million on Truth Social.
“Any candidate needs to be where their voters are. As far as digital campaigning is concerned, Facebook is the largest gathering in the country,” Republican digital campaign strategist Eric Wilson, who leads the Center for Campaign Innovation, told Recode.
Facebook is also a key mechanism for Trump’s fundraising. During his Facebook suspension, he wasn’t allowed to run ads or fundraise on the platform.
If and when Trump starts posting again on Facebook and Instagram, prepare to see more of what he’s been sharing on Truth Social: From April 28 through October 8, Trump shared 116 posts amplifying “followers and sympathizers of QAnon,” and 239 posts containing “harmful election-related disinformation,” according to the tech watchdog group Accountable Tech. He’s also made comments promoting election fraud conspiracy theories that critics say encouraged harassment of election workers, such as threats of hanging, firing squads, torture, and bomb blasts.
“Trump’s rhetoric has only gotten worse” since being suspended from Facebook, said Nicole Gill, president of Accountable Tech. “He has committed himself to the ‘big lie’ and election denialism.”
Last Thursday, Trump wrote on Truth Social, in part, “The Election was Rigged and Stollen, the Unselect Committee of political Hacks and Thugs refused to discuss it, and so it goes.”
According to Facebook’s rules, a post like the one above containing a claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent wouldn’t violate its rules because it’s talking about a prior election, not a current one. But if Trump posts something like that during the 2024 election, Facebook would face tough calls.
Questions abound about how Facebook will handle Trump the second time around
Now that Trump is welcome to come back to Facebook and Instagram, Meta’s policies around political speech are going to attract renewed scrutiny.
Today, Facebook deals with political speech in a nuanced way. While the company has rules against harmful speech like Covid-19 health misinformation or promotion of dangerous groups, the company can issue a “newsworthiness” exception to allow a post if it determines that it’s in the public interest. In 2019, Clegg announced that the company would treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content “that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard,” but in 2021 walked back that policy by saying that politicians’ content will no longer automatically be presumed to be newsworthy — although Facebook can still make exceptions for politicians on a case-by-case basis. The bar for Facebook to actually block a politician’s speech remains high: only if the content could cause real-world harm that outweighs the public interest in leaving it up.
Wilson, the Republican digital strategist, argued that Facebook should be more permissive with political speech.
Once Facebook enforces speech policies against one politician, Wilson says it opens the door for politicians to “work the refs” and ask Facebook to suspend or limit opposing political speech.
“It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, well, this is the criteria that you used to keep Trump off of the platform when he was a candidate. Then let me give you five examples of where my opponent has also crossed that line,’” Wilson told Recode.
Other consultants and policy experts Recode spoke with, such as Casey Mattox, an attorney and free speech expert at the conservative libertarian political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, argued that Facebook should hold politicians to the same standards as everyone else. There should be one set of rules for everyone, and if anything, Facebook should be paying more attention to politicians, since their speech has more influence.
“I think they would be on better ground if [Meta] basically said, ‘Look, these are the rules, and the president and everyone else are expected to comply with those same rules,” said Mattox.
One thing these consultants and experts agreed on, regardless of what they think is the right approach: Facebook should be more transparent about how it enforces its policies when it comes to high-profile politicians like Trump.
“The decision is important for Meta in the context of, is it adhering to a set of rules that people can look to and see as neutral rules? [Rules] that depend on basic standards, that don’t vary according to political orientation?,” said David Kaye, a former United Nations expert on freedom of expression and professor of law at UC Irvine. “I think that’s the key.”
Meta has been criticized by its oversight board — an independent group of academics, human rights experts, and lawyers who advise the company on content decisions and policies — that it needs to be more clear about its rules and enforcement of political speech, particularly after the Trump decision. In response, Meta said it will disclose when it makes exceptions to its rules for newsworthy figures like Trump and developed a “crisis policy protocol” for how it handles speech during times of heightened democratic violence.
But Meta still makes its decisions behind closed doors. In deciding on Trump’s reinstatement, Facebook reportedly created a special team of policy, communications, and other business executives, with Clegg, the company’s top policy — a former British politician — at the helm. The company also consulted with “outside stakeholders” but has not shared who those are.
If Facebook is truly transparent about its Trump decisions, it would distinguish itself from Twitter, whose fairly new CEO and owner Elon Musk gave little explanation for bringing back Trump other than Musk’s belief in freedom of speech and the results of a 24-hour public poll Musk ran on his Twitter page.
“Meta can be sort of the non-Musk here; they can really emphasize the point that free speech on our platform generally is not only about a speaker’s right to say whatever they want,” said Kaye.
Regardless of how Facebook justifies Trump’s continued presence on its platform, it’s in for a wild ride. Even though today’s decision could be seen as the end of two years of uncertainty, in many ways, it’s just the beginning.