Concerns have been expressed this week that allowing Donald Trump to return to Facebok could embolden others to lash out, while he could use it to spread misinformation and to direct personal attacks at others.
However, this week, Meta announced that it will reinstate the former president’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Trump had been banned from the platform following the insurrection on January 6th, 2021, and later referred that decision to the Oversight Board – an “expert body” the social network established to be an independent check and balance of its decision-making.
The board subsequently upheld the decisions but criticized the open-ended nature of the suspension, as well as the lack of clear criteria for when and whether suspended accounts might be restored.
“The suspension was an extraordinary decision taken in extraordinary circumstances. The normal state of affairs is that the public should be able to hear from a former President of the United States, and a declared candidate for that office again, on our platforms,” Facebook said in an official statement.
“Like any other Facebook or Instagram user, Mr. Trump is subject to our Community Standards. In light of his violations, he now also faces heightened penalties for repeat offenses — penalties which will apply to other public figures whose accounts are reinstated from suspensions related to civil unrest under our updated protocol. In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” Facebook added.
The former president seemed to celebrate the ban being lifted, posting on his Truth Social platform, “FACEBOOK, which has lost Billions of Dollars in value since ‘deplatforming’ your favorite President, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account. Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting president or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution!”
Trump’s presidential campaign had officially petitioned Facebook to allow him back on the platform earlier this month, arguing that the ban had inhibited the public discourse.
Some have questioned the decision and suggested the ban shouldn’t have been lifted.
“The concerns being expressed are legitimate,” warned David Jacobson, professor of global business strategy at SMU’s Cox School of Business. “When the earliest Trump social media started, he was parroting social media posts that were posted by fronts for the Russian state security in the name of supposed Americans, whose topics were designed to undermine our country’s confidence in our social systems and democracy as a whole.”
The Facebook ban, in response to the events of January 6, 2021, was meant to highlight that no one, particularly someone with the ability to incite a crowd to action, should be above the rules.
“It’s understandable why social media companies were resistant to censoring the then president,” explained
Colin Campbell, associate professor of marketing at the University of San Diego’s Knauss School of Business and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Advertising Research.
“He likely could have taken actions that may have hurt them and their shareholders,” added Campbell. “However, January 6 shows that so much more than profit was at stake. The fact that Twitter’s own safety team needed to resort to manual oversight methods most likely made it easier for rioters to organize themselves for their attack.”
The Capitol riot further highlighted the ability for online word of mouth to quickly snowball into larger organized movements. The question now is how those companies could or should react.
“Social media sites might consider several different solutions to protect themselves against similar situations in the future,” said Campbell. “Automated tools might be used to identify and restrict harmful content before it even gets posted.”
Social media sites may also need to evolve their software so that no one is ever dropped out of moderation platform. That could further ensure that purpose-built tools for rapid assessment and blocking are still an option.
More broadly, it should be understood that social media has risks, and it has become a powerful platform for the spread of misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and even content that could incite violence.
“A multitude of industries are subject to regulation that protects the public – such as safety standards for airlines or defamation laws for broadcasters,” Campbell noted. “Social media too has potential harms that warrant thoughtful consideration and response.”