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Why Trump’s acceptance of Facebook’s ban won’t break the cycle

“It was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an indefinite and non-standard penalty for indefinite suspension.” the decision says. The commission wrote that Facebook needs to review the same issue, and “determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that apply to other users of its platform.” The commission set a deadline of six months from now, and then we will certainly have another cycle of news about Trump’s presence on social media.

Over the years, Trump has been in the middle of a loop of attention, which was very inconclusive and absurd; a head of state uses his personal Twitter account to increase extremist content, intervene and manipulate people’s attention, retrieve dumb memes, promote dangerous conspiracy theory, and talk directly to followers who eventually wanted to Storm Capitol they thought they had been falsely robbed to try to cancel the election.

For years, companies like Facebook and Twitter have refused to intervene in Trump’s social media posts and should remain protected from “news” even when he has broken the platform’s rules on abuse or misinformation. That began to change when the pandemic struck, as Trump repeatedly used his platform to spread misinformation about both the vote and the virus. In the summer, Twitter began adding “factual checks” to tweets that violated Trump’s rules, which angered enough that the president threatened to repeal Article 230, a rule that protects many Internet companies from liability for what users do in their services.

But even if Trump stays out of the major social media platforms forever, the cycle has settled. Trump will continue to make statements, which will be shared by his supporters, and whether or not they are on social media will be covered by the media. And the network attention cycle that has been in the middle for a long time will continue without him, as well as the underlying structures that allow Trump to have a big impact on social media.

“It’s the worst case for Facebook because it put this thing on hold.”

Joan Donovan, Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

Banning Trump from Facebook would keep him on the side of those networks. Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, who studies media literacy and misinformation, says it is very wrong to focus on platform decisions. Trump’s success on social media comes in part from the platforms, but also from the “economic, political, and social undercurrents” that pushed Trump and will continue to promote the next Trump.

“Trump’s accounts are exhausting because they’re taking away attention from the deepest things we had to work on yesterday,” Phillips says. As if the oversight committee’s decision was going to be a big referendum, Facebook was about how to balance freedom of expression and security: instead, we decided not to change anything, which is why we ended up here in the first place.

The creation of the commission itself was “essentially a media campaign,” says Joan Donovan, director of research, media, and public policy at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School. The fact that the commission didn’t decide means Facebook has been responsible for deciding how to apply its policies, and that’s basically “the worst case for Facebook, it put that thing down,” he says. “They had only one job.”

“When it comes to Facebook, you have to remember that Facebook isn’t just the place where people post messages,” Donovan says. “It gives you the ability to have your own TV,” along with related page and account networks that can quickly increase content for millions of viewers. Facebook is one of the tools and broadcast network for organizing, and its power in that capacity is commonly used for common and bad.

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