Whatever one thinks of Meta’s decision to allow Donald Trump back on Facebook and Instagram, how the company is doing so is already shambolic. This is a man who tried to stay in office despite losing the 2020 election and who incited a violent attack against Congress, efforts which Meta apparently found sufficiently dangerous to take the drastic action of banning him, then the president of the United States, from its platforms. But now Meta is lifting the ban, and as a Meta spokesperson told CNN’s Oliver Darcy, the company will permit Trump to attack the legitimacy of the 2020 election without repercussions.
Why would Meta do this? The company seems to understand that Trump’s attacks undermine democracy and can destabilize the country. The spokesperson also told Darcy that if Trump works to undermine the upcoming 2024 election, then he could face action from the company. (What actions those might be, and whether they would have teeth or simply represent the gnashing of them, is left unstated.) This distinction makes no sense, and it demonstrates the incoherence of Meta’s handling of Trump.
First, Meta’s stance is effectively that Trump is free to return to the behavior for which he was banned in the first place, simply because the 2020 election is now somewhat more distant. For too long, Facebook was tolerant of his and others’ attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election; Trump was suspended only following the January 6, 2021, insurrection. The violence that day was especially egregious and horrifying, but insofar as Trump’s behavior was involved, the difference from his previous behavior was in degree and not type.
What was not clear on January 7, 2021, but should be clear by now, as I have written, was that the riot was simply the final stage of a months-long attempt to steal the election. Trump began calling the balloting rigged even before Election Day, falsely declared himself the winner that night, and then spread false fraud claims for weeks. If Facebook grew concerned by the ultimate violence on January 6, it should now be concerned with the rhetoric that preceded that day and led to it.
Yet now Meta is saying that Trump can go back to using the same rhetoric that was apparently too inflammatory for Facebook to bear after the insurrection. (At the time, Trump was banned indefinitely. Facebook’s independent oversight board then criticized the approach, saying that the ban was justified but the company hadn’t laid out criteria for indefinite suspensions. Facebook responded that it would review the ban in two years, which brought us to Wednesday’s announcement.) And it’s not as though Trump himself has stopped his wild election claims since getting booted off Facebook. The day before the Meta announcement, Trump was making bogus claims that he’d “won Georgia by a lot” on his own Truth Social site. (He did not win Georgia by a lot, or even by a little.)
Second, the danger posed by Trump’s lies about the 2020 election remains. “Our determination is that the risk has sufficiently receded, and that we should therefore adhere to the two-year timeline we set out,” Meta’s Nick Clegg said in a statement, citing a review of “the conduct of the US 2022 midterm elections, and expert assessments on the current security environment.” This is unpersuasive. The 2020 election is further in the past now, but not that much further, and one reason it can’t be relegated to history is that Trump continues to surface it—and the direct harms continue. The recent arrest of Solomon Peña, a failed Republican candidate and self-described “MAGA king,” for a spree of shootings at houses in New Mexico shows how Trump’s election denial reverberates. When the ban was levied, “the point was that an election was retrospectively under attack at the moment of crisis,” Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth who has studied election legitimacy, told me. “The danger wasn’t from attacks before as much as afterward. Why would that change?”
Third, Meta is pretending that a clean demarcation exists between attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 and 2024 elections, but it doesn’t. “Attacking the legitimacy of past elections is of course a way to cast doubt on future elections,” Nyhan said. “It’s absurd to pretend otherwise.”
Political scientists have long identified a phenomenon called the “winner effect,” whereby confidence in the election system rises in partisans of the victorious party, while it erodes in supporters of the losing candidate. But even before Trump launched a seven-year (and counting) assault on trust in elections—recall that he said the 2016 election was rigged ahead of time, then claimed that the popular vote was tainted by fraud—the Republican Party was in a multi-cycle stretch of declining confidence in election systems. Each instance builds on the next.
Trump knows as well as anyone else that an attack on the 2020 election is an attack on the 2024 election. The question is why Meta refuses to acknowledge it. (The company did not respond to questions about the decision.) The fundamental explanation may simply be that Meta is responding to political pressure: It was the motivation behind the ban, and it is the motivation behind loosening it. “Democracy is messy,” Clegg wrote in his statement. Meta is demonstrating that even before Trump makes a single new post.