Trump and Facebook Are Frenemies Who Can’t Let Go

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It’s been two years since Facebook hit the snooze button on what to do about Donald Trump.

After many disappointments, Facebook said in 2021 it would suspend Trump’s account for two years for inciting riots and publicly attacking the American democratic process.

With that deadline here, signs point to an imminent Trump comeback — bad news for public discourse but potentially good for Trump as he makes another bid for the White House.

Trump’s comeback could also help Facebook. Just as Facebook’s policy teams will be troubled by the delicate balance between the protection of freedom of expression and the protection of democracy – as one of the company’s former policy directors clearly stated here – it is more important for shareholders who are increasingly frustrated about Facebook’s financial performance. Many of those shareholders would be happy to hear Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. announcing the return of the former president in the next week or so.

Trump’s posts before his impeachment got massive traction: millions of likes and indirect political arguments between friends and families on millions of Facebook accounts. His return promises to bring back that engagement buzz — and with it additional advertising dollars — at a time when Facebook’s user growth has slowed and the company’s shares have fallen 60% in the past 12 months.

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Meta has cut 11,000 jobs as it tries to build on Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for a revolutionary business, in which he pledged to spend billions of dollars. Shareholder Altimeter Capital Management called all of the virtual reality investments “huge and scary.” With all the traffic Trump can bring, Zuckerberg now has a bone to throw his investors.

Ending Trump’s suspension would not guarantee his return. After all, Elon Musk invited Trump back on Twitter in November and the former president didn’t even look at the platform. But there may be a good explanation for that: The tech billionaire’s provocation probably did nothing to encourage Trump to return to a position where Musk has become a star.

Trump has committed to posting mainly on his Truth Social network — which has seemingly barred him from platforms like Facebook — but the program has plenty of room for maneuver. Although the parent company of this network says in its filing with the SEC that Trump can post on rival networks if he waits six hours after posting something on Truth Social, there is no limit at all if he wants to use Twitter or Facebook “to send political messages, to raise political funds.” or attempts to get out the vote.”

That’s an important difference. Trump may be bitter about his ouster from Facebook, but it would be hard to resist the platform’s service for spreading political messages and fundraising for his 2024 campaign.

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While Trump has a large following on Twitter and the platform has been useful for sending topical messages to the media, those who follow him on Facebook skew older and are generally more sympathetic and supportive of his cause. Facebook has been heavily involved in grassroots campaigning, allowing it to target specific people with longer, more detailed posts, memes and videos.

Based on users north of two billion people, Facebook also offers a wider audience than Twitter, which has about 360 million active users, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It’s no surprise that Trump’s 2016 campaign spent 80% of his digital budget on Facebook, and that his new campaign team has now written to Meta demanding his reinstatement.

For Zuckerberg, Trump’s possible return is complicated. The former president used Facebook to say that Covid-19 was “less deadly” than the flu, attacked his political opponents and posted hashtags that suggested the credibility of QAnon conspiracy theories. His actions put Facebook under great pressure to change recommendation algorithms that have been directing people to cheap groups and mitigate the spread of false information even though such content increases engagement that is important to Facebook’s business model.

One thing that should help Zuckerberg breathe easy: Academic research over the past two years has shown that social media firms are getting better at stopping foreign manipulation on their networks, and Facebook has come under less pressure to censor certain content unless it’s directly harmful, such as harassment. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, said in a podcast in January that social media companies need to “resist trying to make things better” and focus on stopping things from getting worse — in other words, preventing harmful content from spreading.

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What is not clear is how long Trump’s return could take. Last year Facebook promised “a tough set of rapidly escalating penalties” including the threat of permanent removal if Trump violates the platform’s policies again. If Zuckerberg hopes Trump will stick to the rules this time, he only has to look at the former president’s increasingly unedited posts on Truth Social. His return may be short.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Technology Needs More Personality: Eduardo Porter

• ChatGPT Feels Like Us. How Is That a Good Thing?: Stephen Mihm

• Why Mark Zuckerberg Should Face the Threat of Jail Time: Parmy Olson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, he is the author of “We Are Anonymous.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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