Donald Trump is back on Facebook. Maybe. If he wants to be. We’ll see.
On Wednesday evening, Meta finally announced its long-anticipated decision over whether to restore the former president’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, originally suspended by the company in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. The judgment, as described in a blog post authored by Meta president of global affairs Nick Clegg, was that after two years in social-network jail, it’s finally time to replatform the former president. “We will be reinstating Mr. Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts in the coming weeks,” Clegg wrote. “However, we are doing so with new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses.”
The ruling, while sure to be controversial, wasn’t necessarily a shock. Trump already regained access to his Twitter account thanks to CEO Elon Musk—though he has yet to return to tweeting—and his 2024 presidential campaign had petitioned Meta to restore his Facebook and Instagram access just last week, according to NBC News. Whether this means Trump will move on from the alternate platform he co-owns, Truth Social, is unclear. Currently, he is contractually obligated to first share any of his thoughts/rants/conspiracies on Truth Social, with a “six-hour exclusivity” period before posting on any other outlets. That obligation expires in June, however. Two members of the former president’s circle recently told Rolling Stone that Trump may not renew that deal, instead posting on the mainstream social networks where for five years his every missive conjured up each day’s political weather. But it’s hard to say. Trump’s own response to the Facebook news on Truth Social was characteristically befuddling. He wrote on Wednesday that Meta “has lost Billions of Dollars in value since ‘deplatforming’ your favorite president, me,” and that such a suspension “should never again happen to a sitting President,” and also that Truth Social’s “GROWTH IS OUTSTANDING, AND FUTURE UNLIMITED!!!”
Here’s how we got here. In June 2021, weighing the timeline and conditions of Trump’s post-riot suspension in consultation with its semi-independent Oversight Board, Facebook offered “new enforcement protocols” to govern potential future suspensions of public figures. Under this guidance, Trump was hit with “the highest penalty available”: a two-year ban from Jan. 7, 2021 onward. “At the end of this period, we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded,” Clegg stated at the time. “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 re-evaluate until that risk has receded.”
That timeline has indeed run its course. But has that risk receded? “The normal state of affairs is that the public should be able to hear from a former President of the United States, and a declared candidate for that office again, on our platforms,” Clegg wrote in his latest post. “Our determination is that the risk has sufficiently receded.” While he did not enumerate the specific findings that supported this determination, one can assume that the very fact the 2022 midterms did not witness a Jan. 6–style eruption of violence (although it wasn’t exactly free of the kind of election denial Trump has continued to peddle) provided enough reassurance to the Meta c-suite. There’s also the fact that Trump is, officially, a presidential candidate once again, complicating the question of what social media privileges he ought to be entitled to. Undoubtedly, it would be a knotty situation for only some potential 2024 contenders—no matter how narrow the field—to have access to Facebook’s and Instagram’s uniquely wide reach and advertising apparatuses while Trump is shut out.
None of this means Donald Trump is less of a risk to American democracy; just last month, the House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 committee referred him to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution based on his actions leading up to and on that day. But the DOJ hasn’t taken any action. As for Facebook’s justice, the rules seem to have evolved. Clegg wrote in June 2021 that “if Mr. Trump commits further violations in future,” there will be a process toward “permanent removal of his pages and accounts.” A permanent option no longer appears to be on the table: In Wednesday’s blog post, Clegg revised that earlier claim to declare that “in the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation.” Although Trump “faces heightened penalties for repeat offenses,” there doesn’t seem to be any harsher penalty than another two-year ban.
It may be that this is enough for Trump to abide by the rules, should he return. Truth Social is flailing; Twitter may be of less appeal to him, since it has another main character these days; other right-wing social networks like Parler and Gettr aren’t looking so hot. That he’ll return to Facebook, Instagram, and probably Twitter too seems inevitable, even if his activity gets extra scrutiny. We’ll see how long he lasts once he starts posting again on his kids-table account.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.