Trump doesn't get to vomit lies on Facebook — but freedom of speech is intact
After Donald Trump incited an insurrection on Jan. 6 that led to the trashing of the U.S. Capitol, the deaths of multiple people, and the delay — though not the cancellation he sought — of the certification of Joe Biden's election as president, Facebook and Twitter finally banned Trump from their websites. Trump's vitriolic and hateful posts, which often hinted at violence, had long been in violation of the terms of service for both websites, but his status as the president, and frankly the amount of traffic he generated for both sites, was enough to shield him from being banned for years. An attempted overthrow of the government finally crossed the line. Although a cynic would also note that because Trump failed, there was good reason to think his value as a revenue-generating troll was declining anyway, making it a much easier financial decision for both organizations.
On Wednesday morning, the Facebook oversight board issued its long-awaited decision on whether or not to let Trump — who again, attempted to overthrow the U.S. government and have himself installed illegally as president — back onto the platform. In what is a sad statement on our society, there was a real question about whether or not the oversight board would give in to pressure from the Trump camp and recommend reinstating his account. But in a victory for common sense, the oversight board decided to uphold the decision to strip Trump of his ability to inject lies and incitement directly into the social media streams of the kinds of addle-brained idiots who stormed the Capitol.
Not that this was a clean win for democracy, of course. Perish the thought!
Unfortunately, the board did demand that "Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform," giving the company 6 months to comply. Their reasoning is that, while Trump clearly violated Facebook's rules "prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence," the company has no policy on what constitutes a violation that results in indefinite suspension and that needs more clarity.
Long story short: We have to worry about this in another six months. The good news, however, is that's six more months for Trump to fade from relevance, hopefully to the point where the profit motive of letting him back on is not strong enough to overrule the bad press that Facebook would get for doing so.
For months, Trump has been teasing the idea that he would be launching his own social media platform in response to his banning, which his flunky, Jason Miller, told the press "will be the hottest ticket in social media, it's going to completely redefine the game." This week, with great fanfare, the project was released. It's a blog. Not "social media" at all. It's just a series of short posts from Trump, tweet-style, largely focused on his two favorite topics: his belief that he is the greatest man who ever lived and his obsessive grievances against people who criticize him.
Each post has a button so that people can share it on Facebook or Twitter, an obvious attempt to skirt Trump's ban on both platforms. But the flaw in the plan is clear. When Trump was on social media, his posts got shared widely, both by fans and enemies who were sharing in order to dunk on him. But few people are going to be interested in deliberately seeking out this separate site since monologuing from a terminal narcissist is boring. Stripped of his power to be a disruptive troll flipping over tables in mainstream spaces, Trump's dullness becomes the most remarkable thing about him. Even Republicans — 88% of whom believe Trump should be allowed back onto Facebook — are likely going to find that they never think to visit Trump's blog, even if it's just a click away from their favorite social media sites.
Trump starting this blog was a dumb move in another way: It puts to rest any notion that his "free speech" is being stripped from him in any meaningful way. Trump can clearly still express himself, insofar as whining non-stop constitutes a meaningful form of self-expression. And people can even share it! That they don't want to now becomes Trump's problem to solve, and he is incapable of saying things that are, on their own, interesting to share, outside of the threat they present to the health of the nation or international stability.
Not only is Trump's free speech still wholly intact — along with his freedom generally, another gross reminder of the injustice of our deeply unequal society — he is still managing to control the entire Republican Party, despite his social media bans. GOP leadership has largely fallen in line with the Big Lie that Biden "stole" the election, and is focused on pushing out people who speak the truth about the attempted coup.
Still, Trump is bound to be grumpy about this. His death grip on the GOP flows from the widespread perception in party leadership that their base voters are more loyal to Trump than they are to the party. Right now, that may be true, but like cult leaders Jim Jones or David Koresh, Trump understands that keeping his hold over his followers requires constant sermonizing at them. Without his rants being dumped directly in their Facebook feeds, their attention may drift and the spell may even start to break. They'll find some other demagogue to follow, one whose posts are easier to share on Facebook.
Trump loved Twitter and his use of it dominated the media because most journalists are also much more engaged on Twitter than on Facebook. But the reality is that Trump voters — who are older, whiter, and less urban— are more likely to be on Facebook, driving their kids and grandkids nuts by recklessly sharing every fake news story about MS-13 and screenshot of Candace Owens they come across. Because lies and provocations tend to perform better on Facebook than boring old truths, Trump's user engagement on that site before the ban was exponentially higher than Biden's. Facebook started slapping "fact checks" on Trump's lies, but that did nothing to slow down the engagement, as Trump fans simply dismiss facts as "fake news" and Trump's detractors feel more emboldened to share his posts because of them.
The only thing that works against the tide of incitement and lies is bans. The whole "free speech" gambit is a distraction — Trump continues to be free to lie to his heart's content on his own website. The larger issue here is protecting democracy itself, which becomes a very dicey proposition indeed in an information ecosystem where lies spread rapidly but the truth is largely ignored because it's not sexy enough. Trump has every right to spew his lies into the ether if he wants. But he has no right to commandeer the attention of the nation by exploiting algorithms designed to reward provocation over content that's better for the human spirit.
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