Facebook Still Has a Donald Trump Problem

On June 4, Facebook announced an unprecedented two-year ban for Donald Trump. In addition, it declared it would no longer treat political speech as inherently newsworthy and thus less harshly treated. At first glance, this news would appear to be a strong crackdown on Trump's megaphone.

However, Trump could be allowed back on the platform as soon as January 2023, plenty of time before the 2024 election. Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg told Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson that the expectation is that Trump will be allowed back on after his sentence. "A strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions that will be triggered if Mr. Trump commits further violations in future," said Clegg, without specifying what infractions would trigger sanctions. "We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest," he added. And, the company still is allowing itself to use newsworthiness as an exception for moderating content -- only it will disclose the exception publicly now.

In late 2015, according to The Washington Post, Donald Trump triggered Facebook to consider a newsworthiness exception with his comments calling for a total "shutdown" to Muslim immigration. In 2016, the company began a balancing test of newsworthiness and harm for Facebook posts. In other words, if in the judgement of Facebook, if the newsworthiness outweighed the harm, the post could stay up. This policy was further detailed in 2019, when Clegg said, "from now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard."  In practice, that policy gave politicians a huge allowance to spread falsehoods on the platform.

Facebook allowed Trump's posts to stay up until the Capitol riots. In 2020, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Facebook refused to moderate his post of "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." (Twitter put a warning label on the post and has indefinitely banned Trump.) Trump's falsehoods about the 2020 election repeatedly went viral on the platform. The company never said this lack of moderation was a result of the newsworthiness exception. Facebook has only admitted to using the newsworthiness exception once with Trump.

In the June 4 announcement, the company refused to adopt the Oversight Board's recommendation to review its role in the election fraud narrative, culminating in the January 6 riots. Instead, Facebook's response to the recommendation was to point to a group of outside researchers already studying the company's role in the 2020 election. However, this group has no formal power to change the company. "The responsibility for January 6, 2021 lies with the insurrectionists and those who encouraged them, whose words and actions have no place on Facebook," wrote the company, ignoring the fact that the January 6 pro-Trump rally was heavily promoted by Trump and others on the platform.

Trump desperately needs the platform to remain politically relevant. His Facebook page remains live with about 35 million followers, however, he cannot post on it. If allowed back on, he could restart it with a large audience. Elsewhere, his words don't get little attention. This week, he shut down his blog after just a month. The traffic statistics to the blog were poor. According to Axios, the top 20 stories on the blog got about 7,000 social media interactions, on a par with local newspapers in Nashville and Chicago. Those numbers are far below his Facebook page during the 2020 election which got hundreds of millions of interactions. Facebook's Trump problem has gone away for now -- but it is far from over.

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