The case against allowing Trump to return to social media
Why give a bullhorn to the single largest threat to American democracy
Imagine a man and his gang attacked you. You survive, but two years later you are asked whether you are willing to lift his restraining order. You ask if he feels remorse. No, he says. In fact he is the real victim in the whole thing. If anything, he should have gone further. He blames his old gang for being too squeamish. His new gang will make a much better job of it, if given the chance.
Would you allow him to return in your life?
This might seem like a misleading metaphor for how social media executives are dealing with Donald Trump, and it is in one crucial way: they will not directly bear the consequences of the decisions to platform Trump.
META, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, recently decided to allow Trump to return to its site, following the Elon Musk’s decision to reinstate Trump at Twitter. At this point his return feels inevitable. Trump is contractually obliged to post only at Truth Social. But much like his wives, Truth Social will soon learn that Trump does not believe that promises of an exclusive relationship are binding.
Empowering Trump is playing Russian roulette with democracy, and Meta and Twitter just put another bullet in the chamber. But the response has been curiously listless. A quick search shows no opinion pieces in the New York Times or Washington Post on Meta’s decision. The ACLU welcomed his return.
Given the importance of the Trump’s use of social media, it feels like something we should discuss more. Is it such an obviously correct decision to reinstate Trump that it bears so little comment? I don’t think so.
And so, here is the case for why reinstating Trump is a mistake, with potentially large negative outcomes.
The arguments for reinstating Trump
The logic for reinstating Trump rests on the primacy of free speech. More specifically, there is something disconcerting about large social media companies muzzling the leader of one of two major political parties in a country. Slippery slope and all that.
In reversing the ban, Nick Clegg, the former UK Deputy Prime Minister who now serves as Meta’s President of Global Affairs, framed free speech and democracy as inextricably intertwined.
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…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…We default to letting people speak, even when what they have to say is distasteful or factually wrong. Democracy is messy and people should be able to make their voices heard.
This logic is more or less consistent with Musk’s public statements justifying the reinstatement of Trump on Twitter. Musk also believes that social media has been unfair to the far right, and needs Trump to boost a website that he overpaid for and which has seen a dramatic loss of revenue. With Musk, also, it would be easy to point to his free speech hypocrisies, such as his willingness to personally censor reporters, employees, activists or kowtow to authoritarian governments demands for censorship, but let’s take these arguments at face value.
Trump represents a unique danger to democracy
The slippery argument slope is overstated precisely because Trump stands alone in the threat he poses.
Prior presidential candidates, even those who had much better cases than Trump to dispute an election (see Nixon in 1960, Gore in 2000), accepted the outcome of their losses. And it is not just that Trump fought the outcome. As Trump exhausted his legal outcomes, he encouraged a series of schemes to win the presidency, such as false electors, asking election officials to find more votes or otherwise alter the results. He pressured elected officials at the state and federal level, including his Vice President, to ignore the clear outcome of a free and fair election. A disturbingly high number of them did just that. He fed conspiracy theories that his aides told him was false, and ultimately encouraged supporters to march to the Capitol to disrupt the vote-counting process in the hope that it would give his side more time to find a way to overturn the election.
There is simply no-one else with such a combination of anti-democratic intent and power in contemporary America.
If you believe Trump did nothing wrong, this argument is not for you. He should not have been banned in the first place. But if you believe his actions did encourage a violent insurrection, have led to a dramatic and prolonged distrust in American democracy, and encouraged public officials to feed this conspiracy theory, and even act on it, you might be a little more wary of restoring Trump.
To reiterate: this is not a call for censoring conservative speech, or even hate speech. It is an argument to not platform the single individual who has used social media to direct an extraordinary attack on American democracy. There are other Republicans who have leaned into more authoritarian language and conspiracy theories, but none offer the threat that Trump does.
Social media is a central tool in Trump’s arsenal to undermine democracy
Social media was not just the means of Trump’s political ascendency, it was also a key tool for his attacks on democracy. His extra-legal actions to overturn the election depended on his use of the bully pulpit to pressure and intimidate public officials.
The size of Trump’s bully pulpit, the power of his threats, is inextricably tied to his social media reach. Facebook/Instagram have five billion active users. In terms of followers, Trump has 4.8 million on Truth Social. By contrast, he has 88 million Twitter followers, 34 million on Facebook and 23 million Instagram followers.
The claims that Trump makes — of a massive, coordinated conspiracy against him, including a stolen election — are extreme and demand an extreme response. Many of his followers hold conspiratorial worldviews, such as QANON, the Great Replacement etc. Trump attacking individual officials put them not just at risk of losing their job, it will predictably lead to death threats.
Two simple questions
A general logic for the removal of a punishment is that we see either signs of remorse, or that the threat has disappeared.
Has Trump shown any remorse?
No reasonable read of Trump’s public pronouncements would allow us to conclude that Trump feels any regret about his actions to undermine American democracy; if anything he believes he did not go far enough. He continues to argue that a free and fair election was beset with fraud and should be overturned. In October, Trump Truth Social posts mentioned “rigged” in at least 55 posts, and “election” in 195 posts. He continues to identify and attack individual officials for not acting on his anti-democratic rhetoric. He presents the individuals who breached the Capitol with the intent of stopping the vote on January 6th as martyrs and heroes.
Is Trump still a threat to democracy?
Trump remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party, and front-runner for his nomination. This, in itself, is not disqualifying. Indeed, it is partly the justification Meta and Twitter have used to reinstate him. But combined with his anti-democratic tendencies it makes Clegg’s claim that the risk “that the risk has sufficiently receded” seem patently absurd.
Thanks to the January 6th Commission we have much more evidence of how deeply involved Trump was in an effort to overthrow the election. If anything, there is stronger basis to deplatform Trump than before. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric has become ever more extreme. On Truth Social, he argued for ignoring the constitution if it impeded his return to power. He has also more aggressively encouraged extremist views, such as the QAnon theory that frames Democrats as involved in a child sex trafficking cabal.
There is a school of thought that letting Trump back on social media will weaken him by illustrating his extremism, forcing Republican election officials to respond to his comments, and reminding middle-of-the-road voters why they dislike him. This is a solid logic, but one fraught with risks, Many people (including myself) watched gleefully as Trump embarrassed the Republican field in 2016 on the way to what we wrongly assumed to be a crippling loss to Hilary Clinton. Trump’s skill at social media helped him to center news cycles around himself in ways that may help him with the more conservative Republican primary audience.
Even if he fails electorally, Trump’s heightened presence will feed conspiratorial and anti-democratic views, and may encourage other Republicans to take similarly extreme views in response. As I’ve written elsewhere, Trump’s language has encouraged extreme anti-statist rhetoric and attacks on public officials. It is hard to see a path to Republican moderation occurring in the shadow of Trump’s tweets.
Social media leaders have a simplistic understanding of what it takes to defend democracy
Clegg’s justification rests on an important distinction: Trump is no longer a threat to “public safety.” This is consistent with their original logic for suspension. Similarly, Twitter pointed to the “glorification of violence” when suspending Trump.
We might debate if Trump has actually satisfied this standard. Political violence is on the increase. In testifying to the January 6th Commission, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment said:
Trump’s claims of election fraud have enhanced the acceptability of such violence…The 2020 election season was an inflection point that led to a step-change in acceptance of violence as a political tool, particularly among Republicans.
What social media companies are arguing is that there is a sharp distinction between political violence that poses an immediate threat to democratic processes, and other attacks on democracy. It your supporters engaged in political violence that does not pose an immediate threat to democracy, no problem. If you can manage your coup without violence, even better!
On the other hand, social media leaders justify their reinstatement of Trump as supporting democracy (see Clegg’s comments above). In other words, they say they are are defending democracy by defending Trump’s right to free speech.
This is, at best, disingenuous; at worst, a strategic error. Democracy is about more than just speech, and its fragilities have been exposed by Trump’s speech. More than two years on, “good speech” has not defeated “bad speech” as free speech adherents hope: the majority of Republican voters do not believe that the current President of the United States was legitimately elected, and instead believe that American democracy involves massive conspiracies. Many Republican elected officials are willing to act on those false claims. Bad speech won.
Most of my concern has been centered on Trump’s willingness to overturn elections, the purest expression of democracy. But for the people who value free speech, think about second order effects that a more authoritarian government would bring. Trumpism has evolved into moveable feast of imagined enemies, whom he will punish when he retakes the throne. Trump and his supporters have spelled out in straightforward ways how they plan to threaten these enemies, suppress speech and punish dissent using government power. He did not do much of this in his first term, but will be better-organized if he retakes power.
If Clegg, Zuckerberg, Musk and others want to engage in a serious analysis of the relationship between speech and democracy, let’s do that. A starting point would be acknowledging that increasing the reach and influence of the person who represents the most pressing threat to American democracy we have seen in our lifetime comes with significant risks.
Meta has promised “guardrails” which means they will censor specific Trump posts, and reserve the right to kick him off again. (Twitter has made no such promises). This assumes that they can moderate the threat Trump poses with incremental adjustments. This has not, to put it mildly, much of a record of success.
Popper’s paradox of tolerance
Deplatforming major political figures raises serious democratic concerns. It should not be done lightly. But if speech predictably leads to anti-democratic threats, that is also a concern.
A big story of the last few years is how American institutions have struggled to find a way to balance competing values amidst a period of democratic backsliding, partly because of an unwillingness to accurately label or punish anti-democratic threats. American institutionalists like to think of themselves as good democrats, which they associate with an unflinching defense of free speech, much as Clegg lays out above. This makes it hard for them to accept that free speech and democracy are not always aligned.
Karl Popper’s explores this paradox of tolerance. You may have seen this in meme form, which simplifies it a bit.
Or you can read a slightly more detailed explanation of the idea from this book The Open Society and Its Enemies, here, published in 1945 to explain how civilized societies, including the Austria that he had fled, had surrendered to totalitarianism.
In a period when intolerance is on the rise, it is worth giving consideration to Popper’s paradox. If you believe Trump attacked American democracy, you should favor not helping him to do so again. Twitter and Meta have chosen the opposite. If Trump returns to power, they own some of the blame for the predictable attack on our rights, including our speech rights, that will assuredly follow.
Can We Still Govern? is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Zuckerberg and Musk don't care about democracy. We can boycott their platforms. I don't trust other media to ignore Trump, either, since he's been good for their business. What we can do is make Republicans choose between following him and remaining viable as a major political party.