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Why maintaining Trump’s Facebook ban doesn’t break the cycle

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“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indefinite and standard penalty of an indefinite suspension,” the decision said. Facebook must investigate the matter for itself, the board wrote, and “identify and justify an appropriate response that is consistent with the rules that apply to other users of its platform”. The board set a deadline of six months. From this point onwards, we will undoubtedly have another cycle of news about Trump’s social media presence.

For years, Trump stood at the center of an attention loop that was both utterly momentous and meaningless. A head of state used his personal Twitter account to amplify extremist content, manipulate public attention, retweet stupid memes, promote dangerous conspiracy theories, and speak directly to supporters who ended up ready to storm the Capitol to storm trying to overthrow an election You mistakenly believed it was stolen.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter have not interfered in Trump’s social media posts for years, claiming that their “topicality” should protect him even if he violates the platform’s rules for abuse or disinformation. This began to change during the Covid pandemic when Trump used his platform to repeatedly spread misinformation about votes and the virus. During the summer, Twitter began adding “fact-checking” to Trump’s illegal tweets, infuriating the president that he threatened to abolish Section 230, which protects many Internet companies from liability for what users do on their services.

But even if Trump stays away from the major social media platforms forever, the cycle is set. Trump will continue to make statements shared by his supporters and reported by the media regardless of whether he is on social media or not. And the networked attention cycle that has revolved around him for so long will continue without him, as will the underlying structures that enable Trump’s influential social media presence.

It’s the “worst case scenario for Facebook that put this thing together”.

Joan Donovan, Harvard Shorenstein Center for the Media, Politics and Public Order

A permanent ban on Trump from Facebook would keep him on the fringes of these networks. However, according to Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies media literacy and disinformation, it is extremely wrong to pay so much attention to the platform decisions themselves. Trump’s success on social media is based in part on the platforms, in part on “economic, political, and social undercurrents” that stimulated Trump and will continue to promote the next Trump.

“Trump’s reports are stressful because they divert attention from the deeper things we have to deal with yesterday,” said Phillips. The board’s decision was hyped as a major referendum on how Facebook balances freedom of speech and security. Instead, it was a non-decision that changes little about why we ended up here in the first place.

The creation of the board itself “was essentially a public relations campaign for the media,” argues Joan Donovan, director of research at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Order. The board’s approach means that it is up to Facebook to decide for itself how to apply its own policies. This is essentially the “worst case scenario for Facebook that put this thing together,” she says. “You had a job.”

“When it comes to Facebook, you have to remember that Facebook isn’t just a place for people to post messages,” says Donovan. “It effectively gives you the ability to have your own television station,” along with a network of related sites and accounts that can quickly expand content to an audience of millions. Facebook is an organization tool and broadcast network rolled into one, and its power in that capacity is routinely used for better and for worse.

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Steven Gregory