In the Menlo Park, Calif., offices of Meta, discussions probably have already begun to consider what will happen Jan. 7, 2023, when former president Donald Trump’s ban from Facebook for encouraging the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, is set to potentially expire. Judging by how large social media companies have responded lately to the aftermath of the 2020 election and the looming 2022 election in which Republicans may take back control of Congress, there’s ample reason to worry Meta will restore the former president’s ability to post on Facebook — allowing him to continue to spread the false and dangerous claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Social media networks and other online platforms such as Google’s YouTube and Spotify can, instead, step up their support for reasonable measures to assure both vibrant political debate and protection of American election integrity and legitimacy. That would include keeping Trump off Facebook.
The communications and technology revolution over the past few decades that brought us a proliferation of cable channels, on-demand video and extensive social media has created new threats to the integrity of elections. Never before this new era of “cheap speech” have political candidates and others had the ability to communicate false and inflammatory claims of election manipulation directly and repeatedly to voters to influence their views about the legitimacy and fairness of elections. For example, in the three weeks after Election Day in 2020, Trump used Twitter more than 400 times to claim without evidence that the election was rigged against him and in favor of his challenger, Joe Biden. In an earlier era, the media would not have given Trump the platform to spread such lies with regularity and intensity. There would have been no faux news networks such as OAN or Newsmax to amplify claims of fraudulent elections. We would not have had widely spread baseless claims about counterfeit ballots sent in from China or results manipulated by Italian space lasers.
The incendiary claims have had predictably bad results for American democracy. Urged by Trump and his cronies to “Stop the Steal,” thousands of Trump supporters organized via Facebook “groups” and on other platforms to meet in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, the day the Constitution set for Congress to officially count the electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. Some of those agitated by the #StoptheSteal movement stormed the Capitol, resulting in four deaths and injuries to more than 140 law enforcement officials protecting government officials carrying out their constitutional duties.
Trump’s lies have had long-lasting deleterious consequences for American democracy. An ABC-Ipsos poll in January found that most Republican voters believed the false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. A September 2021 CNN poll found that 59 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said believing Trump won the 2020 election is important to being a Republican. This Trumpian base of the GOP has pressured Republican state legislators to pass new laws that make it harder to register and vote, all in the name of preventing phantom voter fraud. Already in Texas, at least hundreds of voters who have regularly voted by mail face the risk of disenfranchisement because of unnecessary new laws passed in the last year. Some Republican candidates running for secretary of state have embraced the “big lie” and made it part of their platform, raising the risk that if they are elected and announce election results, Democrats, too, will lose confidence in the fairness of the election process. Arizona conducted a faux “forensic audit” that produced nothing but more vacuous doubt. When people stop believing in the fairness of the election process or in official election results, it undermines the entire edifice of a democratic society.
Social media and other new communications technologies are not solely to blame for the metastasizing election lies, but they play a big part. As the 2020 election season geared up and as Trump began spreading his false claims in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that the election would be stolen or rigged, Facebook and Twitter reacted meekly. Rather than blocking Trump, they slapped labels on his posts saying his claims were disputed or directing voters to more information. Evidence indicates these labels may have backfired, amplifying Trump’s falsehoods and perhaps even suggesting to voters that they were correct. Things were even worse on other platforms: YouTube allowed videos with false accusations about the election to flourish, and its algorithm directed viewers to ever more extreme content. And those who distribute podcasts, such as on Spotify or Apple, appeared to do little policing of incendiary and dangerous election claims.
It took the actual violence of Jan. 6 for Facebook and Twitter to take action. Both chose to remove Trump from their platforms. Twitter made its ban permanent. Facebook initially did, too, but the Oversight Board it created to give it guidance on content told Meta that while deplatforming Trump was justified because he “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible,” the company needed criteria for removing politicians and conditions for determining the length of such bans. In response, the company announced that Trump would be booted for two years, followed by an evaluation as to whether he remained a “threat to public safety.” The company explained: “At the end of this period, we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded. We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest. If we determine that there is still a serious risk to public safety, we will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to reevaluate until that risk has receded.”
Since then, though, Trump has continued to spread the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, even pushing the lie of a “rigged” election on Fox News on the night Russia invaded Ukraine. He’s supporting candidates that embrace the “big lie” and opponents of those Republicans, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up to him in 2020. Election officials are facing increasing threats of violence and leaving the profession in droves, potentially replaced by those who are less competent and more partisan.
Meta may soon face great political pressure from the right to show that they are being “fair” to Trump, especially with Republicans likely to take control of one or both houses of Congress after the 2022 elections and consider laws reining in tech platforms the GOP considers unfriendly. It could also have other incentives to let Trump back onto the site: Recent reporting by Judd Legum, for example, suggests that Facebook has not followed its own policies to prevent the viral spread of false political information, allowing fake groups to manipulate its rules to build up millions of followers to further spread election misinformation. Posts containing such misinformation are often among the most shared items on the platform.
It’s not just Facebook. To little fanfare, Twitter confirmed a few weeks ago that it will no longer police false election claims about the 2020 election, apparently because it believes such claims are no longer a threat to election integrity. Twitter told CNN that its civic integrity “policy is designed to be used ‘during the duration’ of an election or other civic event, and ‘the 2020 U.S. election is not only certified, but President Biden has been in office for more than a year.’ The staying power of the “big lie” and the rising threat of election subversion built on that lie shows how wrong that calculation is.
Perhaps the biggest culprits for the spread of misinformation are YouTube and podcast platforms that are the worst at content moderation. Every day, people can get awful election information from Stephen K. Bannon and other Trump supporters who continue to undermine election integrity. It’s much harder for companies to engage in algorithmic removal of such content, because video and audio is not as easily susceptible to filtering as text-based messages such as those appearing on Twitter and Facebook.
Companies such as Meta, Twitter and Google are private corporations, which have the right to decide what content to include, exclude, promote or demote on their platforms. They already do that with hate speech, pornography and violence. They need to continue to do that with speech threatening the integrity of American elections. Silencing a political leader should be the last resort, given our commitment to free speech and vibrant election contests. But Trump clearly crossed the line well before the Jan. 6 insurrection.
It’s up to those of us in the public and across civil society to speak out loudly and repeatedly when these companies fail to do their part to shore up American elections and democracy. If we don’t, we soon might not have a democracy to defend anymore.