Two years after January 6, Meta considers whether Trump is still a threat

Former President Donald Trump took to his social media platform Truth Social this week to attack a familiar target: former Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman.

Trump’s post sparked an old baseless allegation that Freeman was part of an election fraud that cost him the election — false claims that two years ago led to a stream of harassment and death threats against Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, who also was an election officer.

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“What will the great state of Georgia do with the Ruby Freeman MESS?” Trump said this in a post on Tuesday. “Why not just tell the TRUTH, get rid of the turmoil and guilt, and take our country back from the evil and betrayal of the Radical Left monsters who want to see America die?”

Freeman’s attorney, Von DuBose, said in a statement that allegations that Freeman was involved in ballot tampering “have been proven false time and time again,” but that her life has been changed and she still feels threatened .

“No one, not even a former president, has the right to knowingly spread harmful, defamatory lies about fellow citizens,” DuBose said.

This is not the first time in recent months that Trump has used Truth Social to spread false allegations about the 2020 election. Since the 2022 midterms, when some Trump-backed candidates lost their races, the former president has regularly taken his platform for to claim that the last presidential contest was plagued by widespread voter fraud or that the election was stolen.

But his comments about Freeman, who told a House committee investigating Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol that she was forced from her home of 20 years because of the harassment she experienced after the 2020 vote, illustrate the difficult situation Meta faces off as the social media giant weighs whether Trump should restore access to his social media megaphone.

Meta suspended Trump indefinitely on January 7, 2021, following his praise and encouragement of rioters who stormed the Capitol. The company’s Oversight Board, an independent group of human rights experts, academics and lawyers that issued binding rulings on some of Meta’s content moderation decisions, later upheld the suspension but criticized the company for not establishing criteria for suspending a user indefinitely.

The company then shortened the suspension to two years and said that once that period was over, it would assess whether the public safety risk had subsided enough to reinstate his account. The two years end on Saturday.

For now, Trump’s account is suspended. Meta spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that the company “will announce a decision in the coming weeks in accordance with the process we have laid out.”

Where Meta comes down on that decision could have widespread consequences, experts say. Although the country is not experiencing the same threat of a violent political uprising that characterized the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Trump’s rhetoric about election fraud — and the movement of people inspired by his remarks — continues to seep online. That should be enough, some argue, to keep him off the platform.

Others say that without the threat of imminent violence, Meta could argue that Trump’s account should be restored. They note that with Trump already declaring his 2024 presidential bid, continuing his suspension would constitute an unprecedented restriction on the digital speech of a major US presidential candidate.

“These platforms are in a difficult position to decide if they want to make their audience available to only one candidate and not another,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School who specializes in election issues and free speech.

Meta’s decision could affect other social media companies that also suspended Trump’s account indefinitely, such as YouTube. And it can set a precedent for how digital platforms treat other world leaders.

“There are lots of places around the world where there is constant violence fueled by leaders,” Persily said. “The question has always been: Is this a unique decision for Trump, or is this actually an interpretation of community standards that apply worldwide?”

Meta’s decision is also likely to reverberate elsewhere, including in Congress and statehouses, where Republicans are pushing for greater restrictions on what social media companies can decide to allow on their sites.

Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) last month urged Meta to extend Trump’s suspension.

“Trump has continued to post damaging election content on Truth Social that would likely violate Facebook’s policies, and we have every reason to believe he would bring similar conspiratorial rhetoric back to Facebook if given the chance,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Meta.

The final report of the House committee investigating Jan. 6 called for congressional committees to investigate social media companies whose policies have “had the effect of radicalizing their consumers, including by provoking people to attack their own country.” But there is no consensus in Congress for such an inquiry, and a more detailed assessment of the role social media played in the Jan. 6 violence was left out of the committee’s final report.

Trump’s online posts that led to his suspension are not in doubt. As a mob forced their way into the Capitol, Trump addressed the rioters in two separate posts: The first was a video posted on both Facebook and Instagram in which he repeatedly said the election was “stolen” but told the protesters to go home. Facebook removed the post for violating its rules against praising people or groups that had been placed on its list of dangerous individuals and organizations.

Later that evening, as police secured the Capitol, Trump posted a written statement on Facebook claiming that “a sacred landslide election victory” had been “viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long.” ” Later he told them to go home but to remember the day forever. Meta also removed this post for violating its rules and blocked him from posting for 24 hours. The next day, the company suspended Trump indefinitely.

Five months later, the supervisory board said it was inappropriate for the company to impose an indefinite suspension without criteria for when or if the account could be restored.

In its decision, the supervisory board noted that heads of state and other top officials may have more power to cause harm than other people, and that Meta should suspend their accounts for a period sufficient to protect against imminent harm. The Oversight Board was created and funded by Meta, but issues binding rulings on its decisions to post or remove content and makes general recommendations on company policies that are not binding.

The following month, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said in a statement that the company would grant Trump a two-year suspension that would only be lifted if “the risk to public safety has subsided.”

Clegg, who has taken on an increasingly visible role in overseeing the company’s public policy decisions, said at the time that after the two-year period the company would turn to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has subsided. He added that the company would take “external factors into account, including incidents of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest.”

Clegg also said that when Trump’s suspension is “eventually” lifted, the former president will face “a strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions,” including up to the permanent removal of his pages and accounts, if he continues to violate the platform’s rules.

Since then, there has been little consensus among tech companies or academics about the best way to deal with world leaders like Trump who break the rules. For example, a minority of the Board of Supervisors recommended that users seeking to have their accounts restored should “acknowledge their mistakes and commit to complying with the rules in the future.”

Some argue that Meta could make the case to bring back Trump’s account because the dangerous political conditions that led up to the January 6 uprising have disappeared. There were few reports of violence at rallies held by Trump in the run-up to the 2022 midterms as part of his aggressive push to bolster the candidates he had endorsed, and many of the suffragettes who lost conceded their election without recourse violence. Even in Arizona, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake refused to concede, rallies in her favor were described as poorly attended.

But some advocates and analysts caution against drawing too many conclusions from the lack of violence during the midterms because presidential candidates have a way of focusing public attention on political movements that congressional races do not. With new owner Musk’s decision in November to restore Trump’s Twitter account, as well as the hundreds of others that have been banned for violating the rules, a decision by Meta to allow the former president to post again would restore his power to to influence extremists in dangerous ways, they say.

“Is [Trump’s rhetoric] safer, or is it that it wasn’t broadcast to hundreds of millions of people on Facebook that kept it safer?” said Accountable Tech CEO Nicole Gill, whose anti-Big Tech advocacy group has run digital and TV ads, that urges company not to reinstate Trump.”The absence of violence after the midterms is no reason at all to let him back.”

Trump’s posts on Truth Social, the Twitter clone created after he left office, provide a window into the kind of content he might share on Facebook if allowed to post again. Last month, Trump said he “swallowed” the Democrats in 2016 “and again, by much bigger numbers, in 2020, but that election was RIGGED. GOTTA DO IT AGAIN!” In November, Trump reinforced a meme that said, “MOST COULD SEE THAT TRUMP CLEARLY WON, BUT WHAT EVEN MORE DIDN’T SEE WAS HOW MUCH CORRUPTION WE THE PEOPLE ARE UP AGAINST.”

Experts say it’s not realistic to expect Trump to drop a theme he’s maintained consistently since losing the 2020 election. “The idea that he’s going to go back on Facebook and never mention that he thinks the results of the 2020 election was fraudulent is probably really unlikely,” said Joshua Tucker, a politics professor at New York University who studies social media.

“I’m sure he’s going to say things that will lead to howls of protest from a lot of other people saying, ‘Well, you let him come back if he didn’t do X and he just did X, so got him kicked off now.’ So again, it’s kind of a lose-lose situation,” Tucker said.

But he added that the greater unknown may be whether Trump chooses to use Facebook at all, even if he is reinstated. Trump has so far not used his restored Twitter account, perhaps aware that his ownership agreement with Truth Social requires him to post to it first. Whether he changes his approach to social media during a heated campaign for the presidency remains an open question. Trump may benefit financially if Truth Social takes off, but he will be able to reach far more people and better tailor his ad campaigns if he uses Facebook.

“That’s the super interesting question,” Tucker said. “If they let him back, what does he do about it?”

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