Wednesday, 06 Dec 2023

TechScape: Why Donald Trumps return to Facebook could mark a rocky new age for online discourse

TechScape: Why Donald Trumps return to Facebook could mark a rocky new age for online discourse


TechScape: Why Donald Trumps return to Facebook could mark a rocky new age for online discourse

It's been two years since Donald Trump was banned from Meta, but now he's back. The company's justification for allowing the former president to return to Facebook and Instagram - that the threat has subsided - seems to ignore that in the two years since the ban Trump hasn't changed, it's just that his reach has reduced.

Last week, Meta's president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, announced that soon Trump will be able to post on Instagram and Facebook. The company said "the risk has sufficiently receded" in the two years since the Capitol riots on 6 January 2021 to allow the ban to be lifted.

What you might not have been aware of - except through media reports - was Trump's response. That is because the former US president posted it on Truth Social, his own social media network that he retreated to after he was banned from the others. And it is effectively behind a wall for web users, because the company is not accepting new registrations. On that platform, Trump is said to have fewer than 5 million followers, compared to 34 million and almost 88 million he'd had on Facebook and Twitter respectively.

Meta's ban meant that Trump wouldn't have space on its platforms during the US midterms elections in 2022, but would anything have been different if Trump had been given a larger audience? As Dan Milmo has detailed, almost half of the posts on Trump's Truth Social account in the weeks after the midterms pushed election fraud claims or amplified QAnon accounts or content. But you wouldn't know it unless you were on that platform, or reading a news report about it like this one.

If given a larger audience, will Trump resume his Main Character role in online discourse (a role that Twitter's new owner, Elon Musk, has gamely taken on in the past few months)? Or has his influence diminished? This is the gamble Meta is taking.

When Musk lifted Trump's ban on Twitter in November after a user poll won by a slim margin, it was easy to read the former president's snub of the gesture as a burn on the tech CEO. But it seems increasingly likely that the Meta decision about whether to reinstate him was looming large in Trump's mind. Earlier this month, NBC reported that Trump's advisors had sent a letter to Meta pleading for the ban to be lifted, saying it "dramatically distorted and inhibited the public discourse". If Trump had gone back to Twitter and started reposting what he had posted on Truth Social, there would have been more pressure on Meta to keep the ban in place (leaving aside the agreement Trump has with his own social media company that keeps his posts exclusive on Truth Social for several hours).

Twitter lifting the ban and Trump not tweeting at all gave Meta sufficient cover.

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