Donald Trump regained his Facebook and Instagram profiles this week. In a surprising move, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, reversed itself. But while Meta is trying to make it sound like they thoroughly examined their policy before a reversal, it's hard to watch this decision without thinking of Elon Musk or the new Congress.
In a statement, Meta called the original policy move "an extraordinary decision taken in extraordinary circumstances." They then go on to describe the process they undertook to reinstate Trump. They have boards, policies, and guardrails all described, but what they don't point out is timing.
Republicans control the House of Representatives and are poised to kick off numerous investigations. Some of those will likely target the decision by Meta to ban Trump from the platform. Reinstating Trump and saying they're unlikely to take similar actions in the future could be a way to de-escalate.
In its reporting, NBC News noted, "The company's quasi-independent Oversight Board later said the site did the right thing by banning Trump but also found it had inappropriately varied from its normal penalties when it made the ban indefinite."
This description sounds very similar to the various revelations we've gotten out of the Twitter Files from Elon Musk. Speech and moderation censors inventing rules on the fly and rationalizing everything on the backside. And those are the best-case scenarios; in some cases, we've learned there were underhanded shadowbans in place for specific users.
It seems unlikely that reinstating Trump would be enough to quell Republican desires to investigate Big Tech. But we'll see.
Speaking of Twitter and Elon Musk, it seems unlikely Meta would make this decision without Musk buying Twitter and throwing all social media into chaos. Back when Musk finalized the deal and took ownership of Twitter, I wrote:
Perhaps the most significant impact Musk's purchase could have will be on other companies. When the most prominent social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more take a stand on an issue, they tend to like moving together. For instance, when Trump got banned from Twitter, other companies did the same thing at the same time. That move was coordinated.
I then posited the exact scenario we're in now: suppose Musk reinstated Trump on Twitter; what would other companies do? "That move would pressure other social media companies to follow suit. Musk could prove to be a sore thumb in an industry that prefers herd action."
When herd immunity is gone, and each company has to justify its decision to ban Trump, it turns out they can't. They can justify locking Trump's account for that day or maybe even a week, but none can come up with a reason for an indefinite or permanent ban.
Had Elon Musk not purchased Twitter and no reinstatement occurred, Facebook could have continued right along with a ban with little explanation. Musk buying Twitter, making that choice, removing herd protection, and forcing everyone to fend for themselves radically changed the calculation.
You can hear Meta throwing up its hands, trying to come up with a reason: "We know that any decision we make on this issue will be fiercely criticized. Reasonable people will disagree over whether it is the right decision. But a decision had to be made, so we have tried to make it as best we can..."
"A decision had to be made" is a laughable conclusion from a company trying to claim they overhauled their policies. The truth is this: they could not rest on poorly written policies after their cover got blown. With the Twitter files out in the open, everyone assumes Facebook and Instagram have a similar decision-making process.
The truth is Facebook couldn't find a rational reason to continue a ban after Biden's inauguration in 2021, let alone keep it up well into 2023.
What is telling is Meta's new rule. They say: "As a general rule, we don't want to get in the way of open, public and democratic debate on Meta's platforms — especially in the context of elections in democratic societies like the United States. 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."
What does that sound like? It sounds like Elon Musk's goals for Twitter. Also, if that was Meta's general rule in 2020 - it's doubtful they enforce any ban.
Love or hate him, Elon Musk has radically altered the direction of social media. Other companies are shifting towards a more free-speech stance, at least in word. That's more than we could say twelve months ago.
When he started SpaceX, we watched other billionaires try to make their own space and rocket companies. After Tesla, the entire auto industry has scrambled to keep up. Musk has challenged social media, and they're following right after him. He's having an impact, whether people admit it or not.