Donald Trump’s return to Facebook

Meta will reinstate Donald Trump’s accounts in the next few days. Here are some of the implications of their decision, as we see them:

1/ He never truly went away. For the last two years, Meta has allowed the Trump campaign to run ads provided they weren’t from his account or using his tone or content too directly. For example, he could run ads fundraising or selling tickets for his rallies, but if he ran persuasion ads with daily fresh talking points about the Biden admin, the company would have blocked them. You could argue removing access to his personal account was sufficient, but it showed Meta wasn’t willing to go all the way and fully cut off his access.

2/ To some extent, Twitter has made this decision easier for Meta. By giving Trump back his account (though he’s not yet tweeting), some of the political and media heat will have gone out of the announcement. It helps to have someone else make the first move, particularly when it’s Elon Musk.

3/ The conditions placed on his account will be important to the legitimacy of the decision to reinstate him. He was justifiably suspended in 2021 for inciting a violent event where people died and his rhetoric was extremely threatening to US democracy as a whole. However, while he still rants about the 2020 election result, the US political climate is now much cooler.

If Meta’s threshold for a second suspension or permanent ban is that he poses “an imminent threat to physical safety”, it seems unlikely they’ll ban him again any time soon. If the threshold is lower, such as him posting disinformation about “stolen elections”, his lack of self-control means he won’t last long. Either way, Meta will want to closely moderate, fact-check and label his posts. At the same time, organisations from across the political spectrum will scrutinise and criticise every decision they take. If Trump does overstep their lines, or the temperature gets too hot again, they’ll have to be ready to quickly pull the plug.

4/ He might not choose to post, at least for a while. His 2024 campaign currently hasn’t really started, and it has no momentum at all. Despite that, he hasn’t yet chosen to tweet and get himself some news coverage to kick things off. It’s possible he’ll wait until there’s a set piece moment for him to do something, either of his own doing, or at a politically useful time. It’ll give him (and Meta) at least two “Trump returns to Facebook” news cycles.

5/ There’s clearly still an audience for him on social media. Right-wing sites like Breitbart still occasionally top lists of most popular links circulating on Facebook, though not with the same frequency as they used to, thanks to newsfeed algorithm changes. Facebook’s heyday may be behind it, but he’ll still have an audience of millions of people who will be happy to see him return, engage with his posts, give him money, vote for him in primaries and, should he make it that far, the 2024 election.

This makes it sound like restoring him to Facebook is something of a civic act, but the obvious downside is that Trump makes the internet a nastier place. Not just because he is, by any social yardstick, an aggressive character, but also because others will continue to copy him. It’s clear Trump’s presence won’t result in broad-based, high quality democratic debate about the complex policy trade-offs and choices needed to govern modern societies. But Meta’s (and Twitter’s) decision here is mostly about the ‘quantity’ of speech rather than its ‘quality’. So his supporters get him back and they, and everyone else, get a nastier internet to go with it.

6/ If Trump is to win in 2024, he’ll need to campaign effectively, and fundraise efficiently. Being back on the mainstream social media platforms will help him with this. He can start to recruit new donors and freshen up his email and SMS lists. Having access to more platforms will allow them to support and cross-pollinate one another again. But rather than having grooved and improved his campaigning technique over the course of two presidential campaigns everything still seems as chaotic as ever. And there’s not much external support either – the Republicans struggled to successfully fundraise online in 2022. In the last election, the Biden campaign beat him handily, including online where they outraised and outspent him by a large margin. Can he attract a top-tier team to sort things out for his third run at the White House? Probably not. As such, he will find it hard to compete directly with the $2bn juggernaut that will be the Biden 2024 re-election campaign.

7/ Although this is a very US politics-focused decision, it comes with wider consequences. While Trump is quite unpopular in the US, he’s deeply unpopular everywhere else. His reinstatement won’t win Meta many friends in Europe, where platform regulation is just kicking into gear.

It also won’t help the Facebook brand, which remains tarnished from the fallout of the 2016 election. With Twitter going through its Muskian travails, and TikTok potentially facing a ban in the US on national security grounds, it’s conceivable to imagine Facebook, with some expensive, careful marketing, gaining a new foothold in the public consciousness. Restoring Trump’s account won’t help with that.

8/ Like the original ban, Trump’s return to Facebook is a significant moment in platform content moderation. Early 2023 isn’t like 2016, nor November 2020 nor January 2021, so Facebook will feel justified in saying it’s time for him to come back. It feels like a close, marginal decision. Meta will hope Trump plays by the rules, spends millions of dollars on ads, brings back a few former users who want to see what he’s up to and then fails to win the Republican nomination.

They’ll be lucky if it goes as smoothly as that.