Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
Platforms and Politicians: A New Chapter
Meta lets Trump back on, and a new precedent is set
A happy Sunday morning from Washington, DC, where the jet lag is giving me an early start, so I’m taking advantage before I crash later. I landed yesterday morning from Jordan and flying to LA this evening for an Integrity Institute staff retreat. Some of us have never met, and I’m very excited.
I am feeling so much better than last week — a huge thank you to everyone that reached out. The post resonated with many people for different reasons, which was my goal - but now it’s time to get back to our regularly scheduled programming.
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Talking about Trump and Meta! 😄
Editorial credit: Camilo Concha / Shutterstock.com
As I’m sure many of you saw, on Wednesday (middle of the night Thursday for me), Meta announced that it was letting Trump back on the platform but with restrictions. If Trump posts content that violates community standards, he could be suspended again anywhere from a month to two years. If he posts something that doesn’t violate but is problematic, the company might take any of the following steps:
Limit the distribution of such posts
Temporarily restrict access to advertising tools
Content remains visible on Mr. Trump’s account but would not be distributed in people’s Feeds
Remove the reshare button from such posts
Stop them from being recommended or run as ads
While most people expected the company to do this, it was expectedly controversial. It’s important to remember that either decision would have serious ramifications. Neither keeping him off nor letting him back on is ideal.
That’s why this decision is not the end of this discussion but just a new chapter in how platforms handle not just world leaders but reinstating previously suspended accounts. We’re entering a much more complicated time where people will watch every move these platforms make in navigating these waters. I also hope this will be when we can discuss new frameworks for how platforms should handle politicians and governments online. (Sidenote: This is one of my big projects for this year that I’m kicking off. If anyone is interested in participating in this - and funding it! - let me know)
For the record, I very much support how Meta is handling this. Of course, given my previous work in this space, I have a lot of bias here, but as I wrote in October, I thought that the President should be let on but with restrictions. As Renee DiResta famously said, “free speech is not the same as free reach,” and this is the direction I think that platforms need to be moving to navigate these tricky waters. We’ve long needed to move beyond the binary of leaving something up or taking it down. This is a welcomed first step to figuring out what the spectrum of that grey middle is.
This week, Twitter also released updated guidelines for how they will consider reinstating accounts that were previously suspended. It also includes levers to reduce reach for problematic but not violating content.
As we assess this decision, we also need to realize how different the platforms are from two years ago. This, too, will impact the impact of Trump’s expected return - at the very least, to run ads.
Politics is getting less distribution - Post 2020, Meta announced that it would reduce politics in feed. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that it was messier than they expected. That said, we are seeing conservative pages getting fewer views, as seen in this chart from FWIW on November 8.
But mainstream news sites’ traffic is also down - to where they are about, even in the amount of traffic from Facebook.
This means that even if Facebook isn’t pulling any of the levers at its disposal specifically for Trump, the former President might see far less distribution for his organic content anyways.
Campaign Ad Dollars are Shifting - In the 2022 midterms; we saw campaigns shift their ad dollars from Facebook to streaming. Now I haven’t seen an overview yet on how much total was spent on Facebook versus other platforms, but this, plus the fact that campaigns are struggling with online fundraising overall, means that while I do think that a lot of this for Trump is about money, there’s a big open question on how successful his ads will even be in that area.
Trump’s Popularity is Tanking - In the last few months, I’ve been somewhat surprised at how I’ve had more and more people who voted for Trump unpromptedly telling me that they hope he doesn’t run again. In December, his popularity was at its lowest since 2015. His 2024 announcement can best be summed up as, “ 🤷🏼♀️shrug 🤷🏼♀️.” This, plus the economy being where it is, might also affect his fundraising and popularity.
People are moving to other platforms - While Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram remain popular, they continue to shift how they communicate online and are going to newer platforms like TikTok. I could/should do a whole post about TikTok and politics, but the fact is this changing behavior will also affect how effective Trump can be on Facebook.
This is all to say that we don’t know what the effect of Trump coming back will be. The threat of violence remains real. But it would be a mistake to think that Trump is returning to the Facebook of 2020.
This leads me to what I’m watching for - and keeping in mind - as we go forward. As Nate Persily said in Evelyn Douek and Alex Stamos’ podcast “Moderated Content”:
“I actually think Facebook has placed themselves in a box here because the worst of all worlds is if they take him down within a month or two. And so now that they’ve announced this, I mean, I think that they’ve sort of upset the equilibrium and it’s possible they’re going to be accused of even more bias because assuming Trump actually uses the platform, which is not a given, then they’re going to have to decide how much does he need to de-legitimize the electoral process before they kick him off? How close does he have to nuzzle up to what he did on January 6th before they take action? And how severe will the actions be? And so I just think that they’ve just invited, they’ve thrown themselves into the hornets nest here a little bit.”
The hornet's nest is a familiar spot for Meta, but here are some things to keep in mind as we watch the chaos:
What do the other platforms do? - Let’s not forget that YouTube also only suspended Trump. I guess that they will quietly let him back on in a few weeks. Until they announce it, I’ve added it to my weekly things to watch list. Snap permanently suspended him, so I don’t think that will change, but we need to see. The question will be if they, too, will add levers to reduce reach should they let him return.
What does Trump do? - This situation sets up Trump for the type of thing he loves the most - suspense and attention. If I’m him and his team, I milk this for all its worth. Right now, I feel like he could just do a post that says, “boo,” and everyone would go into a frenzy. He’s got his Truth Social contract until June, and he’s in the driver's seat. What he chooses to post where - and then how that gets amplified on the platforms - will be the thing to watch.
What do the other 2024 candidates do? - While the GOP field remains frozen, that doesn’t mean they aren’t advertising. My two favorite newsletters to follow about what political entities are doing online are- a progressive media company that tracks both the left and right - and a newer newsletter which focuses on the right. During the midterms, the left spent far more on Facebook than the right. How much are the candidates spending on various platforms? Is it going up or down? When/if Trump starts posting again, how does that compare?
How does this apply to other world leaders - Naomi Nix of the Washington Post has a good story about how Meta’s decision might apply to other world leaders. It’s not super clear if this protocol is only used after you’ve been suspended and reinstated or if they can use this before it gets to that point. I think they should be able to use these before it gets to that point, but we will see. Regardless, don’t forget we have some big elections in 2023 and 2024. The elephant in the room will be if Modi in India reaches these thresholds.
How does this apply to other suspended accounts - Twitter’s guidance talks about how they are handling them overall. Meta has not yet said if other previously suspended accounts will be evaluated under this protocol. I’m thinking especially about Marjorie Taylor Green. I could see this being a question brought up in a hearing.
How transparent will Meta be - I hope that Meta is working on a plan about being transparent when they pull one of these levers to reduce reach. That would include how they assessed the content and came to the decision. For this to work, we will need a lot more from all the platforms about how they are making these assessments. I’d encourage outside groups to think through their assessment frameworks. We’ll need frank conversations across society about what the right levers are to pull and when. The platforms should not be doing this alone.
Don’t expect full transparency - That said, don’t expect full transparency. MANY factors go into how much reach a post gets. It’s often not even known to those in the company exactly why people see certain posts. Trump’s posts might get less reach because the platform shows fewer politics overall, not because they pulled one of their special levers. We should observe and analyze how posts are performing, but let’s not expect a detailed map of what is happening with everyone.
Pay attention to the earnings calls - Meta’s earnings call is on Wednesday. I’d pay attention to how Mark talks about the company's priorities - especially around the newsfeed. During last April’s call, he discussed prioritizing reels and the discovery engine. This week the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, said that the platform showed people too many videos. Where is Mark’s head today? A sense of their direction will also affect the impact of Trump’s posts, even if Mark doesn’t mention Trump specifically.
Can’t end fascism with tech policy - I was listening to Casey Newton and Kevin Roose’s podcast Hard Fork driving home from the airport yesterday, and Casey made a good point that we need to manage our expectations about what tech policy can and can’t do. As he says, “The one thing I think you cannot do with tech policy is end fascism.” These are important debates to be having; we need to have them. But they are just one component to everything our society is grappling with.
There’s so much more about this decision and what might come to unpack. I don’t know which of my former co-workers said this to Alex Heath at the Verge, but it’s 100 percent true: "What happens from here on is more interesting than what happened today."
I can’t wait to work on it. As I told a former co-worker last night, these might not be easy problems to solve, making them fun to tackle.
I also meant to talk about what I learned in Sweden and Jordan this week, but that would have made for too long of a piece. One thing I did hear while traveling and from my survey was that people want more international analysis. The good news is that I’m very close to finishing my plan to expand this newsletter. I hope to write more and add more features - many thanks to the ideas some of you shared in my end-of-year survey. Stay tuned for that announcement very soon.
Finally, a PSA. Some of you may have heard about scams where the perpetrators call your loved ones and mimic your voice to make them think you are in trouble and need to send cash. This happened to a friend of mine days ago. I’ve talked to my family, and we have set up a code word for any of us to say or ask for should we suspect a call might not be real. I highly encourage you to do the same - especially if you speak or work publicly. I also use DeleteMe to get as much information about myself and my relatives off of the Internet.
What I’m Reading
Rolling Stone: Trump Looks to Ditch His Own Social Media Site
The Klonickles: What happens if the Court doesn't grant cert in Netchoice?
The Atlantic: What Happens When AI Has Read Everything? - The Atlantic
Swedish Presidency - Council of the European Union: Media pluralism lies at the heart of democracy: conference on media, democracy and platforms
Center for Democracy and Technology: Report – Defending Data: Privacy Protection, Independent Researchers, and Access to Social Media Data in the US and EU
Knight First Amendment Institute Podcast: Views on First
Integrity Institute Trust in Tech Podcast: Reconciling Capitalism and Community
Freedom Online Coalition: United States Assumes Chairship of Freedom Online Coalition for 2023
Freedom Online Coalition: The Ottawa Agenda Recommendations for Freedom Online
Committee to Protect Journalists: Deadly year for journalists as killings rose sharply in 2022
European Parliament: MEPs toughen rules on political advertising
1050 Bascom: Brazilian Law and Politics with Jean Vilbert
Meta Oversight Board: Oversight Board response to Meta’s announcement on former President Trump
Mozilla Foundation: Director of Campaigns
Ford Foundation: Program Associate
Epic Games: Policy Lead, Trust and Safety
Institute for Rebooting Social Media: Governance in Online Speech Leadership Series: Apply today!
No calendar this week as my post is too long 😬. Trying to figure out a solution for this going forward.
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