Facebook has spent years inventing ways to dodge making judgments on posts by global leaders, with former President Donald Trump chief among them. Now that strategy is in peril.
The social media giant on Friday announced it may give Trump a way back onto its platforms after serving a two-year suspension, just in time for another potential White House run in 2024. That means that one way or another, Facebook will again have to make a politically hazardous call on whether Trump’s posts pose a threat to the U.S. in the run-up to a key election.
And the high-stakes decision-making doesn’t end there. Facebook also unveiled a more hands-on approach for reviewing global leaders’ posts on Friday, where the company will no longer automatically give their rule-breaking posts a pass on the basis that they are newsworthy. That could usher in a deluge of controversies over its handling of political speech.
“This is going to start an avalanche,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the right-leaning American Principles Project think tank.
“It puts them in a really insane situation where everyone is going to be clamoring” for Trump and other politicians’ posts to be kept up or taken down, he added.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Facebook has long rejected the notion that it, or any private company, should be the arbiter of what government officials can and can’t say online. Since 2016, the social media giant has had a policy to keep up remarks by influential users — including politicians — that it deems newsworthy, even if they violate its content rules. Facebook has leaned on that policy to give a pass to politicians’ incendiary or misleading posts.
The tech giant has also at times pushed back on pressure, including from liberal lawmakers, to crack down more forcefully on harmful posts by public officials. In 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2019 delivered a defiant speech rejecting calls to fact-check false ads by politicians, an act he cast as an affront on “free expression.”
“In general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” Zuckerberg said in a public address at Georgetown University. There are exceptions, yes, Zuckerberg said at the time, including when there’s the risk of inciting violence. But by and large, “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
And in 2020 the tech giant took its biggest step yet toward distancing itself from decisions about politicians’ speech by launching an oversight board to make the final call on high-profile cases, including those involving political leaders.
But now Facebook is poised to have more skin in the game than it has in years.
The social media giant said Friday that Trump could be reinstated on its platforms as early as Jan. 7, 2023, two years after Facebook indefinitely suspended him for praising his supporters as they stormed the Capitol during a deadly rampage a day prior. But it’s not guaranteed, and whether or not he returns will be Facebook’s call to make.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said in a blog post announcing the move that the company will evaluate whether “the risk to public safety has receded” before reinstating Trump. And if the company brings him back, Trump could face additional suspensions or even a permanent ban if he breaks the company’s rules again, Clegg said. That means Facebook will again be exactly where it didn’t want to be: making decisions about which words from a prominent political leader are permissible.
And those already high-profile calls could come as Trump gears up for another White House run. Trump even raised the specter of a 2024 bid in bashing Facebook’s decision Friday, saying he wouldn’t dine privately with Zuckerberg again the “next time I’m in the White House.”
“If he becomes a candidate again, it makes this situation exponentially harder around questions about fairness and … all the traditional things that people sort of think about when trying not to put their thumb on the scale in terms of an election,” said Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director who served as an staffer on Trump ally Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 campaign.
Facebook’s announcement on Trump’s decision is already becoming a political lightning rod. Liberal activists and civil rights groups hammered the company on Friday for not booting Trump permanently off the platform, saying his return would pose a threat to democracy.
“A two-year ban gets us past the 2022 election cycle, but does not protect Americans from his interference in the next presidential election, which is why Facebook should, and can, permanently ban Trump,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of the left-leaning Common Sense Media.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the powerful Energy & Commerce Committee, said Facebook’s two-year suspension “isn’t good enough.”
“Any other user would have been banned completely,” he tweeted.
Republicans, meanwhile, are fuming that the party’s most prominent politician will be muzzled on the platform throughout the 2022 elections, when they hope to retake Congress.
“We see this as interference in the election,” Schweppe said. “Donald Trump is the most influential figure on the right, so sidelining him from the platform has huge implications for how the midterms go.”
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) quipped on Twitter: “Facebook suspended President Trump until the midterm elections. Nothing to see here, folks.”
Facebook’s role in policing other politicians’ could soon get a lot harder, too. The company said Friday it would no longer presume their remarks as newsworthy, and thus they won’t be automatically protected from the company’s rule against harassment, hate speech and more.
Facebook’s removal of that protection is sure to lead to more run-ins with Republicans, who have long accused the platform of disproportionately taking down too many of their posts. But it will also force the company to make more high-profile calls about whether politicians’ remarks violate their rules — decisions that have invited intense scrutiny across the ideological spectrum.
“It’s going to raise difficult decisions in significant numbers, because there are a lot of world leaders and a lot of politicians saying controversial and potentially problematic things,” said Paul Barrett, an adjunct law professor at New York University who specializes in content moderation issues.
But whether or not Facebook actually has to now make decisions on a flood of politicians’ posts will hinge on how the company enforces its new policies, and how broadly it interprets the exemptions still written into those rules.
The company said that while it will no longer give politicians’ remarks a free pass by default, it may still exempt them from penalties over their news value. Barrett said if Facebook widely employs that exemption, the policy shift may not change much.
If the company does, however, crack down more on inflammatory posts by politicians, Barrett argued more leaders could meet the same fate as Trump.
“If Facebook takes that seriously, I think that will lead to the removal of any number of political figures from within the United States or around the world,” he said.