‘Catastrophic’: How Facebook’s Trump ban could upend his plans for 2024

45 is locked out of his campaign’s massive fundraising, organising and information-gathering arm

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 05 May 2021 16:39
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A decision from Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the social media company’s move to ban former president Donald Trump from its platforms, while also giving Facebook six months to review the decision.

The binding ruling – four months from the Capitol riot fuelled by then-president Trump’s “stolen election” lies that prompted Facebook to indefinitely suspend his accounts – could have a seismic impact on his future political designs and begin to reshape the digital landscape for public officials and their campaigns.

In its ruling on Wednesday, the board found that Mr Trump “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible” after maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action” leading up to 6 January, with an audience of 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram.

Mr Trump is not only prohibited from posting to his enormous audience; his once-prolific social media campaign has winnowed, locked out of a platform that was poised for an open season of attack ads against his political and cultural enemies ahead of 2022 midterm elections – and ready to reignite campaign fundraising efforts with an eye on running again in 2024.

Facebook was critical to his campaigns in 2016 and in 2020, when he spent roughly $160m on Facebook ads, compared to the $117m spent by President Joe Biden’s campaign within the same time frame.

With that kind of reach, one Republican strategist told Politico that the possibility of Mr Trump’s return “really f***s the other ‘24 wannabes” relying on Facebook to raise their profiles.

The company’s platforms allowed Mr Trump to quickly reach thousands of potential supporters through targeted advertising systems – which also became a reliable revenue stream for the company.

While Twitter served as his mouthpiece, Facebook became a sprawling fundraising, organising and information-gathering arm of his campaign. His 2016 digital director Brad Parscale once called it the “the highway which his car drove on.”

Without it, his “political viability” hangs in the balance.

“Getting this account back is not only essential for his future political viability,” an anonymous Trump source told Axios. “It would also be an undoing of an unjust act by a social media company that made an ad hoc ruling to deplatform a sitting president.”

Meanwhile, his Save America PAC entered the second quarter of 2021 with $85m after raising more than $30m after the 2020 election, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

That sum does not include his Trump Make America Great Again Committee, with nearly $60m cash on hand at the end of 2020.

The Independent has requested comment from Mr Trump’s office and advisers.

In a statement on his website on Wednesday, the former president said “what Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country.”

He claimed “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before.”

“These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process,” he said.

Once a dominant presence across social media, with posts that could upend daily news cycles, social media interactions about Mr Trump fell by 91 per cent since January, according to analysis from NewsWhip provided to Axios.

“It’s really important that he have access to that audience” on Facebook, GOP political strategist Eric Wilson told Politico. “If you’re not there, and not able to shape that conversation, it’s catastrophic.”

After he was booted from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and several other platforms, along with the dismantling of affiliated message boards and websites that quickly filled with hate speech and violence, the former president insisted he didn’t need them anyway.

His brief press releases from his Office of the Former President, often written as if they were tweets, are “better” than posting, he said.

He told Fox News host Sean Hannity in his first sit-down interview after leaving office that he is “getting the big word out because we’re doing releases.”

“Every time I do a release, it’s all over the place. It’s better than Twitter, much more elegant than Twitter,” he said. “Twitter now is very boring. A lot of people are leaving Twitter. Twitter is becoming very, very boring.”

He also launched his own “communications platform” – which essentially functions as just a website blog.

“This is just a one-way communication,” a “source familiar with the space” told Fox News, which announced the website in an exclusive feature. “This system allows Trump to communicate with his followers.”

A video on his website calls it a “place to speak freely and safely”.

One day before the Oversight Board decision, Mr Trump – with his trademark projection – made the claim that got him removed from social media in the first place: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”

The president and his allies have accused private companies of violating conservatives’ First Amendment rights on their platforms, where an avalanche of false statements, mis- and disinformation and violent threats have thrived across right-wing pages and groups.

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows said Wednesday’s decision from Facebook is “the latest page in the book of big tech coming after conservatives.”

In a statement the day after the pro-Trump riots, fuelled by his persistent lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him and his supporters, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that “the risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”

“His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote in a post on 7 January. “We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect – and likely their intent – would be to provoke further violence.”

In their first appearance in Washington DC since the riot, Mr Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai faced a panel of Democratic lawmakers furious about the persistence of misinformation on their platforms, while Republicans – conflating “misinformation” with political speech objectionable to liberal Democrats – accused the companies of censorship.

Mr Zuckerberg said he believes Mr Trump “should be responsible for his words and that the people who broke the law should be responsible for their actions” in his opening statement.

He said that Facebook did its “part to secure the integrity of the election, and then on January 6, President Trump gave a speech rejecting the results and calling on people to fight.”

But Mr Zuckerberg cast doubt on his company’s platforms’ responsibility for increased polarisation and political division in the US, saying that he believes the “division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart, and we need to reckon with that if we’re going to make progress.”

“The reality is our country is deeply divided right now, and that isn’t something that tech companies alone can fix,” Mr Zuckerberg said.

He pointed to the misinformation surrounding Spanish-language campaigns in Florida that was also “amplified on TV and in traditional news as well.”

“There was certainly some of this content on Facebook, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re building effective systems that can reduce the spread of that,” he said. “I think a lot of those systems performed well during this election cycle.”

Asked on Tuesday whether the White House anticipates changing its messaging strategy should Mr Trump’s accounts be reinstated, press secretary Jen Psaki said, simply, “No.”

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