Meta’s decision Wednesday to replatform former president Donald J. Trump on Facebook and Instagram is lamentable and ill-considered. The company’s own standards required his continued exclusion from the social media platform so long as he remains a “serious risk to public safety”—and he remains one. After all, it was Trump’s continuing election-denialist rhetoric that apparently led a MAGA-supporting New Mexico candidate last month to mastermind shootings into the homes of Democratic legislators. Millions of Americans continue to believe Trump’s false claim of a stolen 2020 election, and some have taken violent actions and made threats against election workers and others involved in the election process.
The replatforming decision was the latest misstep by a company that “did not even try” to grapple with the risks of election delegitimization in 2020, according to a leaked draft report from the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol. But rather than wring our hands over mistakes Meta has made, we should focus instead on how the company can minimize the ongoing risk that Trump poses. The key thing that Meta can do now is escalate sanctions against him, such as demoting his content and blocking his expected campaign ads, if he continues to undermine the integrity of American elections.
To begin with, we must understand that Meta’s decision to replatform Trump is not the result of a real examination of the continued risk he poses to American democracy but a political calculation. Republicans have taken back control of the United States House of Representatives, and Meta executives were already threatened with being hauled before House committees to answer to spurious calls of “censorship.” Elon Musk has invited Trump back to Twitter, so we can already expect his content to recirculate widely; Trump also is an announced candidate (and current frontrunner) for the Republican nomination for president, and, ordinarily, social media companies should be very reluctant to exclude major party candidates from their platforms. Meta executives may have felt they had no choice but to bring him back.
So what should Meta do now that it has invited Trump to return?
First, the company should understand it has significant leverage over him. Trump has used Facebook advertising as an effective fundraising tool in the past, which probably explains why he lobbied Meta to return to the platform, even as he has so far declined to return to Twitter.
While Meta has said that Trump will face “heightened penalties” if he breaks the platform’s rules, such as by creating a risk of civil unrest, it should go further. Mark Zuckerberg should call Trump directly and warn him that he risks having his posts demoted or removed and his advertising limited if he glorifies or encourages violence, especially election-related violence. We know from the draft report that Zuckerberg has called Trump about specific posts before. Zuckerberg should be firm that sanctions will come if Trump posts anything that could be interpreted as even an implicit threat of violence, given that Trump likes to use innuendo to make his threats.
For example, Trump recently took to posting on the Truth Social platform (in which he has a partial ownership interest) to once again attack Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman. His earlier false claims against Freeman and her mother led to threats of violence against them and a climate of fear for election workers. Meta should not tolerate anything like these posts on Facebook or Instagram.
Second, Meta should demote posts from Trump that engage in election denialism. While Meta has said that it may demote content “that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon,” it does not appear to be willing to take action on what will likely be a core part of what he posts: delegitimation of the last election that will cause continuing harm to faith in our democracy and democratic institutions.
This is a key failing on Meta’s part. Rolling Stone reports that Trump is planning to make his return to major social media platforms with posts about “rigged elections.” Demotion means that the material would remain visible to people searching for it, but the company’s algorithms would be less likely to suggest the posts into people’s feeds. As a private company, Meta has the right under the First Amendment to promote or demote content as it sees fit. And just as Musk, as owner of Twitter, can decide to replatform white supremacists and neo-Nazis (as he recently did), Meta can be a more responsible corporate citizen and decline to amplify election lies that threaten violence and undermine democratic institutions.
Third, Meta can renew its commitment to protecting free and fair elections in the United States and around the world. It can begin by beefing up the election integrity team that it partially dismantled after the 2020 elections. The draft report of the Jan. 6 committee describes the weakening of election protections that the company had in place in the past.
There is an urgent need for the restoration of strong election integrity measures. Whether Zuckerberg likes it or not, social media platforms are one of the main ways people communicate about politics and elections around the world. And that means they also become major vectors of election disinformation. That was true not only of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but also the recent attack on government buildings in Brasília following the recent defeat of Trumpian candidate Jair Bolsonaro. As the Times’ Jack Nicas recently reported, the rioting was the result of social-media-fueled “mass delusion” focused on election denialism: “Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters have been repeating the claims for months, and then built on them with new conspiracy theories passed along in group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram, many focused on the idea that the electronic voting machines’ software was manipulated to steal the election.”
The political pressure from the right for Meta to keep Trump’s posts and advertisements up, even if they continue to spew election denialism and include nods to violence, will be strong. But Meta has to be stronger in standing up for democracy and free and fair elections.