When Facebook and Twitter booted Donald Trump from their platforms two years ago, the moves felt momentous. Trump was still president. His supporters had just mounted a brazen, violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. Facebook was America’s preeminent social network and a hotbed of political discourse and organizing. Twitter was the president’s primary megaphone.
Since then, much has changed. Trump is out of office and sidelined politically, though still influential. The wounds of Jan. 6 are unhealed but no longer fresh. Exiled from the largest platforms, Trump has retreated to a smaller social network of his own making, Truth Social, with which he claims (perhaps unpersuasively) to be satisfied.
And Facebook? Well, Facebook isn’t Facebook anymore — literally. The company changed its name to Meta in October 2021 as part of a startling pivot from social media to building a virtual-reality “metaverse” that its users have yet to embrace. More importantly, Facebook is no longer the social network, having lost market share, mindshare and much of America’s youth to the video platform TikTok.
All of which helps to explain why the company’s announcement Wednesday that it will reinstate Trump to Facebook and Instagram — an announcement made not by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but by former politico Nick Clegg, its public affairs chief — felt oddly anticlimactic. Not only because Trump may or may not in fact return, but because neither he nor the platforms themselves are the titanic forces in American culture and politics that they were when he left.
Elon Musk similarly restored Trump’s Twitter account in November after polling his followers, but the former president has yet to tweet.
Clegg’s announcement Wednesday began somewhat more grandly than Musk’s Twitter poll. “Social media is rooted in the belief that open debate and the free flow of ideas are important values, especially at a time when they are under threat in many places around the world,” he wrote, echoing Zuckerberg’s rhetoric that often cast Facebook as a guardian of free speech.
He went on to lay out a somewhat convoluted, legalistic explanation for why reinstating Trump was the only logical move according to Meta’s protocols and community standards, maintaining the company’s tradition of valiantly resisting any notion that it’s simply making all this stuff up as it goes along.
The crux of the argument is that suspending Trump was a move made in a moment of crisis for the country, and that the crisis has since subsided, justifying his return. Though the Jan. 6 committee found evidence that Facebook and other social platforms helped to create the conditions for the U.S. Capitol attack, its final report buried those findings, and Clegg’s announcement made no mention of Facebook bearing any responsibility.
Clegg said that while Trump will be allowed back, he’ll be held to stricter standards this time. That’s thanks to a newly revamped official policy on “Restricting accounts by public figures during civil unrest.” What he glossed over was that, while the policies discourage “content that delegitimizes an upcoming election,” they don’t say anything about past elections. That appears to leave the door open to Trump continuing to delegitimize the 2020 election, as he has often done on Truth Social in the years since.
Conspicuously absent from the decision-making process was Facebook’s semi-independent Oversight Board, once heralded by some as a tidy solution to its content moderation conundrums. The board, funded by Facebook and composed of experts on law and human rights, was tasked with reviewing the company’s decisions on what people can and can’t post, though it tackles only a tiny fraction of them.
Following Meta’s announcement Wednesday that Trump was reinstated, the board released a statement noting that it “did not have a role in the decision" and that the responsibility “sat with Meta alone," while calling for further transparency from the company.
Facebook suspended Trump indefinitely on Jan. 7, 2021, for using the platform to incite violence. The Oversight Board’s initial review of that move criticized Facebook for its ad hoc nature and called on the company to develop a more systematic approach to enforcing its rules against public figures, putting the ball back in Zuckerberg’s court. Facebook responded by suspending Trump for two years, saying it would reinstate him only if “the risk to public safety has receded.”
There was a time when Facebook’s decision to reinstate Trump would have stirred pyrotechnics of partisan outrage, with pundits picking apart each point for insight into what it reveals about exactly how the social network wields its awesome power over the public square. On Wednesday, with Musk having already invited Trump back to Twitter, the initial reaction from the left registered more like resignation.
At this point, there’s a sense in which Facebook and Trump almost feel made for each other. Both appeal chiefly to boomers and Gen-Xers; both are fountains of falsehoods, sensationalism and simplistic memes. Both appear to have passed the peak of their powers, though there’s still a chance they could resurge.
This might yet turn out to be a fateful decision, if Trump makes a triumphant return to Facebook and Twitter and rides them to another conspiracy-theory-fueled bid for the presidency. While Twitter allowed him to set the day’s media and political agendas, Facebook has historically served as a lucrative fundraising platform for his campaigns. Whether Facebook fulfills Clegg’s promise to take a tough line or finds excuses to avoid doing so, as it did for the entirety of Trump’s presidency, is worth watching.
But at this moment, the move feels inevitable more than earthshaking; a sheepish olive branch extended from a diminished institution to a diminished politician, each struggling to maintain its relevance.