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Feeding the Troll
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Feeding the Troll

On Trump’s return to Facebook.

Donald Trump’s Facebook account has been restored. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/Getty Images.)

Twitter is a kingdom. Facebook is a modern nation-state.

You’ll find nods to democracy on Twitter but it’s clear already that the new king rules capriciously, as kings did before most monarchies were stripped of power and turned into glorified tourist attractions. Early aspirations toward deliberative government went straight down the toilet after his coronation. If you take Mad King Elon seriously when he says “vox populi, vox dei” to justify his whims, try pissing him off. You’re apt to land in the dungeon regardless of what the populi might say about it.

Twitter’s the sort of place where the owner babbles endlessly about free speech for critics of the “woke mind virus” while allegedly suppressing material critical of the government of India, where he has business interests. And when he’s called on it, he professes ignorance—never mind that he’s typically quick to notice whenever some red-pilled chud in his timeline complains about being shadowbanned or whatever.

If you find it hard to reconcile how he can be so self-righteous about Twitter’s previous management bowing to government pressure while apparently doing the same, you’ve misunderstood the nature of monarchy. He doesn’t need to explain himself. He can posture all day long as a free-speech warrior while saying nary an unkind word about Chinese totalitarianism with no need to reconcile his positions. It’s good to be the king.

Facebook is different. It too has a king of sorts but it aspires to something approximating modern statehood. It has more users than any nation on Earth has citizens. It toyed with introducing its own currency. Lately it’s thrown its energy into building an honest-to-God alternate reality for its users to inhabit.

Like any modern state, it claims to be governed by the rule of law. So when it makes a major decision involving content, that decision tends to come packaged with lots of argle-bargle about “protocols” and standards and careful consideration by committees to reassure citizens—sorry, “users”—that President Zuckerberg’s administration isn’t operating capriciously. For an example, look no further than this windy explanation from June 2021 explaining why Donald Trump’s post-insurrection ban from Facebook would end after two years. The author, Facebook Vice President Nick Clegg, previously served for five years as deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom. When Zuck needed someone to help him run Facebook’s bureaucratic virtual state, he turned to a guy with experience running a real one.

Clegg returned on Wednesday with an update to his post from 2021. True to his word, Trump’s suspension was being lifted. The world’s most toxic troll would be paroled on schedule after two years, free again to regale his tens of millions of followers with tales of the evil “Coco Chow” and the new Yellow Peril that’s infecting our government.

Modern nation-states haven’t been great at restraining Trump’s worst impulses, as a glimpse at his nonexistent criminal rap sheet in the U.S. demonstrates. They don’t quite know what to do with an amoral thug who whines endlessly about being victimized by a corrupt regime and has tens of millions of people willing to treat any demand for accountability as evidence that he’s right.

Facebook will struggle with him too.

“Perhaps I’m being dense here, but what behavioral changes has Donald Trump manifested in the past 2 years that would warrant his reinstatement to [Facebook and Instagram]?” asked journalist Jim Roberts when the news broke. Typically someone isn’t granted parole unless they demonstrate that they’ve been rehabilitated, right?

Trump hasn’t become a more responsible political figure since January 6. He’s become less of one. Lately he sounds like a “deranged hobo in a dilapidated public park,” as Charles Cooke of National Review put it. With good reason:

There’s every reason to think he’ll get worse over time as his brain continues to braise in a stew of grudges, narcissism, and age. It’s an odd moment at which to hand him back his Facebook account.

In his 2021 post, Clegg pointed to one factor that would guide the company’s decision. At the end of Trump’s two-year suspension, he wrote, “we will look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded. We will evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest.” That calls to mind the Supreme Court’s logic in Brandenburg v. Ohio. The state can criminalize incitement to violence only if a person intends to incite, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action, the court held.

No mob has descended on the Capitol lately. No MAGA devotees have tried to kill any cops. (Not since August, at least.) There’s no “imminent” threat, and to the extent that there is, there’s no reason to think Trump’s words are “likely” to cause anyone to act. What’s the downside of humoring him by handing him back his Facebook account?

Humoring him always has a downside, it turns out. He might not have a horde intent on hanging anyone at his beck and call this instant but he’ll do his best to galvanize one if he ends up being indicted—which, as chance would have it, could happen any day now. The last time Trump faced serious legal peril, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security had to issue a joint bulletin warning of increased threats to law enforcement from crazed MAGA fanatics. Depending on when and whether he’s charged with something, Facebook could find him exploiting its platform immediately to promote civil unrest.

Clegg is already worried about it.

Like any other Facebook or Instagram user, Mr. Trump is subject to our Community Standards. In light of his violations, he now also faces heightened penalties for repeat offenses — penalties which will apply to other public figures whose accounts are reinstated from suspensions related to civil unrest under our updated protocol. In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation.

How embarrassing it would be for Facebook to have to ban him again soon after reinstating him. Trump won’t make their decision easy for them either: Even before the insurrection, when he warned of a “wild” rally to come on January 6, he was careful never to explicitly condone violence. He has a history of threatening his enemies, but those threats always come flavored with a bit of plausibility deniability, from “predicting” that his fans would riot if he were denied the nomination in 2016 to “joking” that he’d pay the legal bills for anyone who assaults a protester at his rallies to “worrying” that the political temperature was getting too hot after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago.

Trump never incites violence, he merely observes that violence might happen if he doesn’t get his way. (And relishes when it does, allegedly.) Facebook is destined to suffer a recurring headache in trying to parse the difference between the two.

It’ll also be forced to explain some of the strange content distinctions it’s drawn for the sake of allowing him back onto the platform. For instance, the company told CNN that they won’t let him cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2024 election but will let him cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. That makes no sense, as encouraging Americans to doubt that Trump lost the last election fair and square implicitly encourages them to doubt that he could lose the next one fair and square. But if Facebook is hellbent on bringing him back, this phony distinction is one they have no choice but to draw. After all, whining about 2020 constitutes 95 percent of his daily blather anymore. If they deemed that off limits, they’d have to ban him within 10 minutes of letting him back on.

Because they know that moderating Trump will be a nonstop daily nightmare, they’ve given themselves the option to apply lesser sanctions in cases where he falls short of incitement but nonetheless violates some other site policy. When he promotes QAnon or fumes about “Coco Chow,” say, Facebook “may limit the distribution of such posts, and for repeated instances, may temporarily restrict access to our advertising tools,” per Clegg. In some cases, if his posts break the rules but it’s in the public interest to know what he said, Facebook reserves the right to leave those posts up on Trump’s account. (Which sounds suspiciously like an incentive to misbehave. The more outrageous his content, the more newsworthy it is.) One comes away after reading Clegg’s missive with an image of the company tangling itself up in a game of moderation Twister, straining to somehow retain its balance as it welcomes back the biggest civic menace of the age.

Seems like more trouble than it’s worth, frankly. But Facebook has its reasons.

Three reasons, specifically.

One is the GOP’s takeover of the House. According to NBC, Trump’s campaign had been petitioning Facebook to reinstate him, but those petitions gained weight recently when his party regained a House majority. Before Clegg rendered his decision, one Trump adviser told the network that the campaign is “prepared to engage with House Republicans who control the lower chamber of Congress to advocate on Trump’s behalf and pressure Meta,” adding that “Congress is likely to examine Section 230 of the federal law affecting social media companies.”

Facebook got the message. Think of Trump’s reinstatement as an olive branch from the company to the new powers that be in the House. Facebook lobbyists will have a warmer reception from Trump’s toadies on the Hill once he’s posting again than they would have had if he were still frozen out. The fact that the company announced two years ago that they expected to restore his account in 2023 must have made the capitulation that much easier.

A second reason is money, of course. Trump and Facebook each had a lousy year in 2022 as they lost relevance to Ron DeSantis and TikTok, respectively. But Facebook has had a lousy two years when it comes to advertising revenue. “Facebook and Google have seen their ad-spending share drop since they set restrictions on paid content targeting minors in 2021,” Politico explained in a story about Trump’s return. “And Apple’s iOS privacy changes in 2021, limiting how much apps can track users’ data, have cut into Facebook’s ad revenue significantly.”

A new presidential cycle is beginning. Trump is already in the race. His campaign is keen to leverage Facebook for access to grassroots donors and no doubt Facebook is keen to have them do so. Trump himself never posted much on the platform, notes Semafor, but his previous campaigns “have basically written the book on how to best take advantage of Facebook’s targeted advertising” in the words of one Republican strategist. Trump 2020 spent more than $100 million to run in excess of 750,000 ads there. Regaining access to it now, with the primaries about to kick off, could ignite his small-donor fundraising.

At the very least, it’ll help Trump compete with DeSantis in the “arms race” for Very Online populist influencers.

The third reason Facebook is reinstating him is the most depressing of the lot. If social media is a mirror on our collective psychology, one might argue, shouldn’t it properly reflect how degraded right-wing politics has become? Here’s Clegg explaining that the leader of the Republican Party basically must be given a platform.

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 world. As a general rule, we don’t want to get in the way of open, public and democratic debate on Meta’s platforms — especially in the context of elections in democratic societies like the United States. The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box.

The suspension was an extraordinary decision taken in extraordinary circumstances. The normal state of affairs is that the public should be able to hear from a former President of the United States, and a declared candidate for that office again, on our platforms.

“We’ve always believed that Americans should be able to hear from the people who want to lead the country,” he told Axios in an interview. “We don’t want to stand in the way of that.”

In other words, a “deranged hobo” who tried to cling to power by organizing a coup that nearly led to his own vice president being lynched has to be given a second chance because many millions of Republican voters want to make him president again.

Facebook is seldom sympathetic, but I do sympathize a bit with rational actors straining to find a workable compromise with that degree of civic degeneracy.

The best I can do to put a happy face on his return to the platform is speculate that it might hurt his presidential chances on balance. If, as has been claimed, he’s about to terminate his “exclusivity” deal with Truth Social and start posting on Twitter, his thoughts will soon have a gigantic audience again. Weary Republican voters torn between him and DeSantis might decide that they lack the energy to endure another six years of his derangement intruding hourly into their daily lives. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, right? Well, returning to Twitter and Facebook will thrust Trump back into the sunshine of public attention.

According to Rolling Stone, for his first tweet after his long hiatus he’s considering “a slickly made, WWE-style campaign video about the ex-president returning to the platform, and then to the White House.” There may also be something in the works “comparing himself to Superman.” Many Republicans will see it, shake their heads, and mutter, “I can’t. I just can’t. Not again.”

But “many” doesn’t mean “most.” To believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant, you need to believe that most Republican voters will take a hard look at Trump in the full light of day and dislike what they see. That they’ll conclude that a man too dangerous to post freely on social media after he lost a presidential election is also too dangerous to be made commander-in-chief. You need to believe, in other words, that they’ll respond soberly, with basic good judgment.

Based on the sort of judgment they’ve demonstrated over the last seven years, how lucky do you feel?

Luckier than I do, I hope.

I’ll leave you with this thought. To this day, the only sanction Trump has suffered for attempting a coup against the incoming U.S. government was losing his social media accounts. That may change soon depending on what happens in Fulton County, but until recently those of us who wanted to see him face some sort of accountability had to content ourselves with the fact that he was no longer free to fart out his dumb memes on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to Elon Musk and Nick Clegg, even that trivial penalty has now been rescinded. Trump is, for the moment, off scot-free.

The virtual “public square” will soon stink again with the smell of rhetorical piss from a deranged hobo. We get the country we deserve.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.