Donald Trump is spreading the Qanon delusions and other half-truths and lies on his network. Now he is returning to mainstream social networks, where extremism is hard to avoid. But the big companies will let him go, they are making good money out of him.
Last September, former President Donald Trump shared a picture on his Truth Social network with a Q-shaped badge in his lapel and a phrase closely associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory movement: “The storm is coming.” In doing so, he was targeting 4 million of his potential supporters, while supporting a movement that falsely and aggressively claims that leading Democrats are child-eating devil worshippers.
Two years after he was banned from most major social media platforms for his role in fomenting unrest in the Capitol, Trump has returned to the networks (he’s been let go by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) and is increasingly extreme – though much less visible to most Americans who never use the relatively obscure platforms on which Trump posts, sometimes surprisingly quickly.
Since February 2022, when Trump unveiled his social media website, he has shared hundreds of posts from accounts promoting QAnon’s ideas. He continues to falsely insist that the 2020 election was stolen and that he is a victim of corrupt federal law enforcement. And he has launched personal attacks against many of his perceived enemies, including private citizens whose names he has previously singled out. Trump’s return to major platforms means the ex-president will take his more radical behaviour to a wider audience on Facebook and Instagram, which together have 5 billion active users, and on Twitter, with 360 million active users.
“It’s not that Trump has significantly changed the way he behaves online. In fact, he’s even more extreme,” said Jared Holt, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who studies technology and extremism in the United States. “I don’t think anyone should reasonably expect him to behave differently when he’s back on Facebook and Twitter. And when it comes to spreading conspiracy theories, Trump has great ambitions to be the best here.” Trump has no barriers, as he himself wrote, on Truth Social, nor should the Constitution stand in the way of his return to power. “Mass deception of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” former President Trump judges.
Yet the Meta has let Trump back on Facebook. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, wrote in a blog post that “our decision is that the risk has sufficiently subsided.” He added that suspending Trump’s Facebook activity was “an extraordinary decision taken in extraordinary circumstances” and that under normal circumstances “the public should be able to hear from the former US president and declared candidate for the office again on our platforms”.
In an effort to prevent Trump from stirring up unrest in the future, Meta said it will prevent the sharing of posts that question the legitimacy of the election or promote QAnon content, among other things. Violating company policy could also lead to Trump being blocked from the site again, Meta said. Conservatives applauded the decision, and the American Civil Liberties Union and Senator Bernie Sanders defended the move.
If Trump returns to the major social networks, Republican candidates and elected officials – who have dodged questions about his inflammatory tweets during his presidency – will be much more likely to be pressed to comment on his words, often fabrications and lies.
Trump has so far posted exclusively to his 4.8 million followers on Truth Social, and occasionally forwarded this content to his nearly 800,000 subscribers on Telegram. Those follower numbers pale in comparison to his potential reach elsewhere. Only 2% of Americans use Truth Social or Telegram as a regular news source, compared to 28% for Facebook and 14% for Twitter.
Trump’s own statistics underscore this disparity. Nearly 88 million people follow him on Twitter, while his Facebook account has 34 million followers. His Instagram page, which tends to focus on family photos, has 23 million followers.
According to people close to Trump, the ex-president is aware that by returning to these platforms, he would risk losing Truth Social as his biggest draw. But it’s possible that his desire for more income will be outweighed by the enormous attention Facebook and Twitter may provide him in his next run for president. Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights group Color of Change, said Trump’s huge following may be part of the reason Meta decided to let Trump back in.
“Corporations like Facebook continue to find ways to capitalize on Trump even as they condemn him,” said Robinson, whose group has been pushing Facebook to implement policy changes through advertiser boycotts. “It’s not just that they let Donald Trump back on their platform, it’s that they’re benefiting from him.” Trump spent $89 million on Facebook and Instagram ads and $56 million on Google and YouTube ads in the campaign leading up to the 2020 election. (Google suspended Trump’s access to YouTube in January 2021; it has no plans to bring him back.)
“Facebook has more followers than Christianity,” Robinson said. “In terms of reach and advertising power, there’s nothing comparable.” Meta executives have not commented on this criticism, but the company has noted in the past that political advertising represents a tiny fraction of the company’s overall revenue, and Meta has admitted that it has tweaked its algorithm to suppress political content over the past two years.
There’s money behind everything. On all sides. In a June podcast interview, Kash Patel, a Trump adviser and at the time the CEO of the company that owns Truth Social, described the proliferation of QAnon-friendly content on the site as a deliberate business decision by a platform struggling financially. “We’re trying to incorporate it into our overall messaging scheme to engage the audience,” Patel said. “You can’t ignore this group of people that has such a strong and dominant following.”
While it’s possible that Trump will moderate the stream of extreme posts if he returns to mainstream platforms, it’s far from clear whether he will do so. In the meantime, he continues to spread lies and half-truths about the 2020 election on his network…
published: 13. 2. 2023