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Why upholding Trump’s Facebook ban won’t break the cycle

The Facebook Oversight Board's decision to maintain the former president's ban—for now—won't change much, and it might not even take the heat off Mark Zuckerberg.

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Orlando, Fla
AP Photo/John Raoux

The night before the Facebook Oversight Board decided to stand by the company’s decision to ban him from its platforms, former president Donald Trump announced—via an exclusive on Fox News—that he’d created a website. Called From the Desk of Donald Trump, it looked like a social media site but was really just a feed of his statements. Each statement had a “Like” button, and buttons for sharing links to that post on Facebook and Twitter, where Trump remains permanently banned. 

It was done in anticipation of the oversight board’s announcement on Wednesday that it was upholding Facebook’s ban on Trump.

The decision was awaited by many as urgently as a Supreme Court ruling. And yet the board—which characterizes itself as independent but was created by and funded by Facebook—simply relies on Facebook’s word that it will abide by its decisions (its recommendations, meanwhile, are nonbinding). The decision was not nearly as final as some seemed to expect, either. While upholding the initial ban, the board essentially said Facebook needed to decide for itself what to do with Trump’s account in the long term, instead of punting it to somebody else.  

“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” the decision reads. Facebook needs to review the matter itself, the board wrote, and “determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform.” The board set a deadline of six months from now, at which point we will no doubt have another news cycle about Trump’s presence on social media. 

For years, Trump was at the center of an attention loop that was both extremely consequential and meaningless; a head of state was using his personal Twitter account to amplify extremist content, manipulate public attention, retweet dumb memes, promote dangerous conspiracy theories, and speak directly to followers, who in the end were willing to storm the Capitol to try to overturn an election they falsely believed was stolen.

For years, companies like Facebook and Twitter refrained from interfering in Trump’s social media posts, claiming their “newsworthiness” should keep him protected even when he broke platform rules on abuse or disinformation. That began to change during the covid pandemic, as Trump used his platform to repeatedly spread misinformation about both voting and the virus. Over the summer, Twitter began to append “fact checks” to Trump’s rule-breaking tweets, which so infuriated the president that he threatened to abolish Section 230, the rule that shields many internet companies from liability for what users do on their services. 

But even if Trump stays off the major social media platforms forever, the cycle has been established. Trump will continue to issue statements, and they will be shared by his supporters, and covered by the media whether or not he is on social media. And the networked attention cycle revolved around him for so long will continue without him, as will the underlying structures that make Trump’s influential presence on social media possible. 

It's the "worst-case scenario for Facebook, who put this thing together."

Joan Donovan, Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy

Banning Trump from Facebook permanently would keep him on the sidelines of these networks. But focusing so much attention on the platform decisions themselves is extremely misguided, says Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies media literacy and disinformation. Trump’s social media success comes partly from the platforms but partly from “economic, political, and social undercurrents'' that incentivized Trump and will continue to promote the next Trumps to come.  

“Trump’s accounts are exhausting because they are taking attention away from the deeper stuff we’ve have to deal with yesterday,” Phillips says. The oversight board’s decision was hyped as a major referendum on how Facebook balances free speech and safety; instead, it was a non-decision that changes little about why we ended up here in the first place. 

The creation of the board itself “was essentially a media op PR campaign,” argues Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. The board’s approach means that Facebook has been tasked with deciding for itself how to apply its own policies, which is essentially the “worst-case scenario for Facebook, who put this thing together,” she says. “They had one job.”  

“When it comes to Facebook, you have to remember that Facebook isn’t just a place where people post messages,” says Donovan. “It effectively gives you the capacity to have your own television station,” along with a network of related pages and accounts that can quickly amplify content to an audience of millions. Facebook is an organizing tool and broadcast network in one, and its power in that capacity is routinely used for good and for bad. 

Conservative content does extremely well on Facebook, despite longtime claims by many right-wing personalities that their voices are unfairly suppressed there (the claim of censorship itself generates a vast amount of viral right-wing content whenever it comes up). The top-performing link post on Facebook the day before the ruling was from Ben Shapiro, the right-wing commentator, who promoted a Daily Wire article about a city “revolt” against critical race theory, according to Crowdtangle. Shapiro had three of the top 10 posts of the day.

Trump is permanently banned from Twitter for inciting the mob of right-wing extremists who stormed the Capitol building in his name on January 6. YouTube said in March that it will reinstate his channel when the risk of violence lessens.  

 Meanwhile, in six months, there will be another day when Facebook issues a decision about Trump’s account, and we will all be talking about this again. 

“It’s really hard to keep showing up and thinking and analyzing and being thoughtful when it feels like you are shooting that light into a black hole,” Phillips says. “People need to be paying attention, and it all matters so much. If you exhaust people to the point of burnout, then that’s going to benefit Facebook.” 

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