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How Much Does Unbanning Trump Really Matter?

He’s back. Photo: Alon Skuy/AFP via Getty Images

Two years after suspending him, Meta is letting Donald Trump log back onto Facebook and Instagram. In a company announcement, former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom and current “President, Global Affairs” of Meta Nick Clegg explains:

Social media is rooted in the belief that open debate and the free flow of ideas are important values, especially at a time when they are under threat in many places around the w—

Sorry, I forgot what these sorts of announcements are like. Skipping way, way ahead:

Our determination is that … risk has sufficiently receded, and that we should therefore adhere to the two-year timeline we set out. As such, we will be reinstating Mr. Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts in the coming weeks. However, we are doing so with new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses.

So, Meta, as planned, is unlocking Trump’s accounts, with a catch. Since his ban, and largely because of his ban, Facebook has updated its “protocol” for Trump-like situations (previously, elected officials had been afforded special leeway). Accounts reinstated from “suspensions related to civil unrest” will be subject to “heightened penalties,” up to and including another two-year ban. If or when Meta wants to ban Trump again, it’ll have clearer policies to point to, and Clegg’s implications are pretty clear: They’ll be watching; also, Meta can still ban whoever it wants, if it really needs to.

Trump is already technically unbanned from Twitter, but hasn’t yet posted there, despite the personal efforts of Elon Musk; on Truth Social, Trump criticized Meta but didn’t preclude a return. According to Rolling Stone, the former president, who has a variety of contractual obligations to Truth Social, is already plotting his return.

The banning of Donald Trump from most major social-media platforms was an unprecedented event, and so would be his return. For the duration of his presidency, Trump really did get a lot out of Twitter. He was the actual president, so his words mattered wherever they were uttered or posted, but his constant stream of tweets contributed to his extraordinary command over the attention of the media and the general public. Trump’s relationship with Facebook was less direct but also significant. He didn’t have much personal interest in the platform or what was posted there on his behalf. His 2016 campaign, however, used its advertising tools to great effect. It was, as one right-wing Facebook content creator gleefully told me in the run-up to the election, where his darkest messages discovered an enormous online audience of “unactivated, instinctive conservatives.”

Trump’s use of social media is storied for a reason, and it would be a mistake to just brush off his return — a lot of speculation about 2024 feels like it’s neglecting the obvious questions. Does DeSantis stand a chance against Trump, or has Trump been so effectively muted from the online discourse that it just feels that way? Is Trump really sort of washed up and tired, or does such wishful thinking have more of a chance to flourish now that he can’t just bulldoze through it with a series of posts? Many discussions about Trump’s political prospects and the future of the Republican Party — and to a lesser extent America’s political future in general — have been built on the assumption that this period of his absence from social media was the new normal, and it’s about to get tested.

That said, it would also be a mistake to assume things will be the same for Donald Trump on the internet of 2023. By the time he was banned, things had already shifted under his feet. The novelty of his Twitter use had worn off, and everyone from the press to his own subordinates had developed a somewhat better understanding of when it could and should be ignored; the Democrats had won with a candidate who had virtually no personal interest in social media, whose campaign had made a point of minimizing the Twitter Discourse as a measure of public sentiment or a source for ideas.

Meanwhile, in hindsight, Trump’s 2016 win probably marked the high point of Facebook’s influence over politics and corresponded approximately with the peak of its relevance in general. By the 2020 election, Facebook was clearly a platform in decline, mostly because its users were becoming bored or alienated and moving on to other platforms, but at least in some part because the platform had undergone a series of changes intended to sideline news and political content, which was broadly making its users miserable, and which its advertisers didn’t find especially appealing.

In 2023, Facebook is a weird and siloed environment. Its most politically engaged users have retreated into private groups, and the platform is fighting to stay relevant with frequent renovations inspired by newer, faster-growing platforms. Today’s Instagram, not that Trump or his people ever found especially profitable uses for the platform, is roughly analogous to Facebook in 2016. It’s a service that has probably peaked, and which remains important, but which will be focused on slowing or at least maximally monetizing its gradual ride down.

Trump will almost certainly find his return to social media empowering, in personal and actual ways — Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter might interface with politics in different ways than they used to, but they still matter a great deal. Perhaps Musk-era Twitter, with its thousands of reinstated right-wing accounts and new leadership, will afford Trump new sorts of influence and relevance; if nothing else, it will make the lives of his critics and various antagonists much worse, which is worth a lot. And Facebook is still a major channel for reaching voters, even if only through advertising. It’s not like there’s an obvious alternative.

There’s a broader case to be made that the era of social media that favored Trump’s communication style and message is coming to a close, and it’s not yet clear what’s growing in its place. TikTok is an established incumbent platform, now, with its own unique connections to popular politics — the idea that Trump could cultivate power and influence using the platform there is not entirely absurd. But it is fairly absurd, not least because he attempted to ban the Chinese-owned platform while he was in office.

There’s also the matter of what he might post when he’s back. Since his ban from Twitter and Facebook, he’s had plenty of time to post on Truth Social, where he’s started sharing straight-up QAnon material, embraced decreasingly legible conspiracy theories harvested from fringes of right-wing online discourse, and descended into frankly boring feuds about deep election-denial lore. How this all looks in the timeline remains to be seen — maybe it works, and the future is darker than I want to imagine! — but the people in charge of Twitter and Meta have made their decisions: We’re going to find out.

How Much Does Unbanning Trump Really Matter?