Facebook board decision to uphold Trump ban a major blow

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The decision by Facebook’s Oversight Board to extend a ban on former President Trump on the world’s biggest social media platform is a major political blow, at least for now, that denies him access to a huge audience he needs to help amplify his message, maintain his fundraising base and retain his dominance over the Republican Party.

For a former television celebrity who is a glutton for public attention, the decision extends by six months a political starvation diet imposed since January by a social media blackout and his departure from the White House.

The Oversight Board on Wednesday upheld Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump’s account following his inflammatory posts in relation to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.

But the board said it was inappropriate for Facebook to have set that suspension “indefinitely,” and said the company should, in the next six months, review the case and make a clear decision about whether he will be banned from the site permanently or for a specific amount of time.

Trump responded with an angry statement, calling Facebook and other companies that have banned him “a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country.”

“Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before,” he said. “The People of our Country will not stand for it! These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”

The Oversight Board’s ruling buys Facebook some time but opens the door for Trump to be allowed back on the platform this fall, just as the 2022 midterm elections will be beginning to heat up — including GOP primary contests that Trump will probably want to influence.

But in the meantime, Trump will remain off all of the company’s social media platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp.

Trump is also likely to remain banned from Twitter, his most frequently used social media platform. Losing access to Facebook is an even bigger setback because it reaches a broader audience of more than 1.8 billion active daily users and is particularly useful as a fundraising and organizing tool.

According to a November poll conducted by the Center for Campaign Innovation, a conservative nonprofit research firm, 60% of voters used Facebook on a daily basis — even more than the 56% who watched local TV news daily. Just 18% used Twitter daily.

“His social media presence is very, very central to him being a dominant actor in U.S. politics at this time,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor of information studies at UCLA and author of a book, “Beyond the Valley,” on the relationships between technology and politics.

GOP critics of the ruling said it showed that tech companies are biased against Trump and conservatives.

“This is a dangerous and reckless decision and sends a clear signal to conservatives using social media — you’re not welcome here,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative Republican Study Group, in a post on Twitter. “If Facebook is so big it thinks it can silence the leaders you elect, it’s time for conservatives to pursue an antitrust agenda.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a liberal critic of Big Tech, agreed that the decision helps make the case for breaking up the large technology companies. “Facebook is a disinformation-for-profit machine that won’t accept responsibility for its role in the safety of our democracy and people,” Warren said on Twitter. “Trump should be banned for good, but Facebook will continue to fumble with its power until Congress and antitrust regulators rein in Big Tech.”

Shomik Dutta, co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for progressive political technology in Santa Monica, applauded the extension of the Trump ban.

“It sends an important message, not just to Trump and his allies, but to the next set of crazies who think it’s OK to traffic in hate and fear and not have consequences,” Dutta said. “It is important to set standards for truth.”

After the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, Facebook suspended Trump’s account indefinitely. Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies did so as well. Twitter has shown no sign of lifting its ban, and a legal challenge involving Trump’s account has been thrown out as moot by the Supreme Court.

“We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in announcing Trump’s suspension in January.

That was a crushing punishment for a politician who pioneered the use of social media to advance himself, raise campaign cash and dominate news throughout his presidency. The social media shutdown in January, weeks before President Biden’s inauguration, contributed to the abrupt transformation of Trump from being omnipresent to being almost invisible to the general public for the last three months. That has been a surprise to those who predicted that Trump would not quietly leave the political stage after the election but would continue to be a constant commentator on events and his successor.

To be sure, even without social media, Trump has maintained a firm grip on the Republican Party, where adherence to his baseless claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him has become something of a GOP litmus test. He has thrown his political weight around with candidate endorsements in contested GOP primaries, special elections and leadership fights. In a single statement Wednesday, Trump denounced Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and even his own vice president, Mike Pence, for failing to do enough to overturn Biden’s election victory. The statement’s claim of 2020 election fraud was just the kind of false assertion that has helped earn him social media sanctions.

Without social media, it has been much harder for Trump to reach beyond the GOP activist base, and it is much easier for people not in his thrall to ignore him. His office-in-exile puts out occasional statements and press releases, praising friends and lambasting foes. But his rhetorical lightning bolts get far less attention from the media than did his presidential tweets.

Trump has not turned to alternative platforms such as Parler and Clubhouse. But he has toyed with the idea of establishing his own social media platform. His political action committee Monday announced the launch of a new website, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” where he can post comments and videos, making it easy for followers to reshare his messages. But despite the fanfare, it does not have social media’s crucial feature of allowing users to engage with one another and Trump.

The continuing Facebook ban could hurt Trump’s fundraising because, while his political operation has a formidable cache of email and phone contacts, that information goes quickly out of date as people change email addresses and cellphones. Facebook is one of the best means of harvesting fresh information on potential donors.

However, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Trump could benefit politically from backlash against the ruling.

“Trump is big winner from Facebook’s insane decision to ban an American who received 75 million votes,” Gingrich said on Twitter. “He will be a martyr attacked by social media oligarchs. 75% want these companies regulated. 68% want free speech guaranteed.“

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