Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
Facebook has done the bare minimum once again regarding Donald Trump's account, postponing real action for two years. But anything short of a full ban rings hollow. Trump spent years using Facebook to push misinformation and spread extreme rhetoric against his critics -- particularly during his presidency -- and it should be easy for the platform to do the responsible thing and permanently ban his account.
On June 4, Facebook announced plans to suspend Trump for two years, leaving open the possibility of his return "if conditions permit." But if Trump is let back on, he will by all indications continue to abuse the platform to spread misinformation and attack others, as he's done for years. A two-year suspension — just one election cycle — is unlikely to change that.
Media Matters previously reported that roughly 24 percent of Trump's posts between January 1, 2020, and January 6, 2021, contained either misinformation, content warranting an additional information label, or harmful rhetoric about others. Based on his previous habits, we estimate that his two-year suspension will keep at least 2,800 posts with misinformation or extreme rhetoric off the platform, including at least 700 posts that would likely have contained election misinformation.
Facebook has let Trump abuse its platform for years. His 2016 campaign was bolstered on Facebook by fake accounts, and it used data illegally obtained from the platform. And things have not improved since. As our data on his 2020 posts shows, the 24 percent of his 2020 posts that pushed misinformation or extreme rhetoric earned 331.6 million interactions. Facebook's meager attempts to rein in Trump's lies have not been effective, and in some cases -- such as with the platform's labeling system -- they may have backfired.
Facebook's refusal to permanently ban Trump is unsurprising, as he and his extreme rhetoric are good for business. According to Pathmatics data analyzed by Media Matters, the Trump campaign spent roughly $121.5 million on Facebook ads in 2020, earning over 16 billion impressions on these ads. The only companies that spent more on Facebook ads in 2020 were Disney and HBO. And this figure includes only the money the campaign gave directly to Facebook; Trump also directed users to other misinformation spreaders that make Facebook money, putting him at the center of Facebook's lucrative right-wing misinformation ecosystem.
Despite at least one Facebook executive's claims, divisive content garners high engagement, and engagement drives Facebook's profits. The ecosystem propped up by Trump is lucrative, so it is predictable – though still disappointing – that Facebook is hesitant to upset its profit producers.
Trump's Facebook and Instagram pages remain visible, as they have throughout his suspension, and his old content continues to garner new engagement. It's unacceptable that Facebook has left visible content featuring the behaviors (spreading misinformation, inciting violence) that got him kicked off the platform in the first place, and it's exemplary of Facebook's careless content moderation.
Facebook has done everything it could to avoid taking responsibility for Trump's misuse of the platform, and this approach continues in its unwillingness to commit to permanently preventing his return. Now Facebook has all but guaranteed that Trump will make headlines again when his suspension is reevaluated. The cowardly decision is completely antithetical to the platform's stated mission – "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together." By failing to ban Trump outright, despite the damage he has done, Facebook has shown its true mission is increasing profit regardless of the costs.
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