Trump and Facebook are frenemies who can’t let go

It’s been two years since Facebook hit the snooze button to say what to do with Donald Trump. After much hesitation, Facebook said in 2021 that it would suspend Trump’s account for two years for inciting rioters and publicly attacking the US democratic process.

With the deadline here, the signs are pointing to Trump’s imminent return – bad news for public discourse, but potentially great for Trump as he makes another bid for the White House.

Trump’s return would also help Facebook. As much as Facebook’s political teams will agonize over the delicate balance between protecting free speech and upholding democracy — as one of the company’s former political directors has eloquently pointed out here — his priority is shareholders, who are increasingly frustrated with the financial performance of Facebook. Many of those shareholders would likely be happy if Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc. announced the former president’s return in the next week or so.

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Trump’s posts prior to the suspension garnered tremendous traction: millions of likes and an indirect spate of political wrangling between friends and families over millions of Facebook accounts. His return promises to bring back that flurry of interactions — and with it, more ad dollars — at a time when Facebook’s user growth has stalled and the company’s stock has fallen 60% over the past 12 months.

Meta has cut 11,000 jobs as it seeks to build on Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s otherworldly vision for a Metaverse business it had promised to spend billions of dollars on. Shareholder Altimeter Capital Management has described all virtual reality investments as “oversized and daunting”. With all the traffic Trump could bring, Zuckerberg now has a bone to throw to his investors.

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Ending Trump’s suspension would not guarantee his return. After all, Elon Musk invited Trump back to Twitter in November, and the former president hasn’t made a peep on the platform. But there could be a good explanation for that: The tech billionaire’s teasing provocations likely did little to propel Trump back onto a platform where Musk had become a star.

Trump committed to posting primarily on his Truth Social network – which would appear to keep him away from platforms like Facebook – but the agreement offers plenty of wiggle room. While the network’s parent company states in its SEC filing that Trump can post on competing networks if he waits six hours after posting on Truth Social, there’s no restriction whatsoever on using Twitter or Facebook for “political news.” , political fundraising” or efforts to stop voting.”

That’s a crucial difference. Trump may be bitter about his ban from Facebook, but it might be difficult to resist using the platform to spread a political message and raise money for his 2024 campaign.

While Trump has more followers on Twitter and the platform has been useful for delivering headline-grabbing messages to the media, those who follow him on Facebook are getting older and are generally more sympathetic and supportive of his cause. Facebook has always had greater potential for grassroots campaigns, allowing it to target specific demographics with longer, more detailed posts, memes, and videos.

With a user base of more than 2 billion people, Facebook also boasts a much broader audience than Twitter, which has about 360 million monthly active users, according to data from Bloomberg. It’s no surprise that Trump’s 2016 campaign spent 80% of its digital budget on Facebook, and that his new campaign team has now written to Meta to demand his reinstatement.

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For Zuckerberg, Trump’s potential return is complicated. The former president used Facebook to say that Covid-19 is “less deadly” than the flu, to attack his political opponents and to post hashtags that lend credence to QAnon conspiracy theories. His actions are putting tremendous pressure on Facebook to reorganize recommendation algorithms that direct people to extremist groups and to curb the spread of misinformation, even though such content drives engagement that is essential to Facebook’s business model.

One thing for Zuckerberg to breathe a sigh of relief: Academic studies over the last two years have shown that social media companies are getting better and better at stopping foreign manipulation on their networks, and Facebook has come under less pressure to censor specific content, it unless they constitute direct harm. such as harassment. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, said on a podcast in January that social media companies must “resist trying to make things better” and focus on not making things worse — with in other words, to prevent harmful content from going viral.

It is unclear how long Trump’s return could take. Last year, Facebook promised a “stringent series of rapidly escalating sanctions,” including threats of permanent removal if Trump again violated the platform’s policies. If Zuckerberg hopes Trump will play by the rules this time, he need only look at the former president’s increasingly unhinged posts on Truth Social. His return may well be short-lived.