What would it take for Facebook to pull the plug on Donald Trump?

Donald Trump's Facebook posts may see the social network forced to suspend his account once he's no longer in the Oval Office

Every day that Donald Trump refuses to admit defeat to Joe Biden, is a day that Facebook is forced to firefight misinformation.

As well as launching legal challenges, Trump has used his Facebook page to amplify unproven allegations of fraud in the 2020 Presidential election and to rally against Pfizer for withholding news of its vaccine breakthrough until after the election. 

In the past 24 hours, all of Trump’s Facebook posts, except one, carry a fact-checking label informing users that "Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 US presidential election". 

Trump’s continued use of Facebook signals an impending dilemma for the social media company. When Biden takes office in January, should Facebook limit Trump’s ability to use the platform to spread conspiracies?

"If he continues to violate the rules that these platforms have set out, I think there is some chance that they would kick him off altogether," says Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

"But I think they will hesitate long and hard before doing that because it will no doubt only exacerbate the divisions that already exist online."

“I reckon they are probably really nervous about this,” says Josh Smith, a senior researcher at think tank Demos. “I wouldn’t be massively surprised if some kind of censorship or removal was conducted,” he adds.

Trump has created an enormous challenge for Facebook. His account has stayed up as the company fought allegations of conservative bias while also cracking down on misinformation spread by the president himself.

Since the election, Facebook has seen an explosion of misinformation. The 10 most popular links on the site on Monday included four right wing articles which sought to cast doubt on the election result. Each had been shared hundreds of thousands of times.

This week, Twitter said Trump will become subject to the same rules as any other user when  Biden takes office. Facebook, however, has made no such promise and has not replied to The Telegraph’s request for clarity on the subject. 

Facebook is no stranger to banning politicians – just not in the United States. In India, the platform removed pages linked to a politician from the ruling BJP party while in Ukraine, the company suspended the account of politician and Trump ally Andriy Derkach.

A network of Facebook pages connected to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has been removed

Credit: Getty Images 

The banning on Monday of a series of pages linked to Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon due to “deceptive tactics” is a scenario of the kind which may await Trump in the coming months.

“After January I think it might be that Facebook has this compelling argument depending on the content that Trump and his supporters continue to put on the platform,” Smith says.

The social network has banned people for becoming serial spreaders of misinformation, meaning Trump could be in line for the same treatment if he spends the coming months doubling down on his claim of a stolen election.

What is Section 230?

Damian Collins, the British MP who is a member of a group of Facebook critics which calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board, backs calls for Facebook to intervene with Trump’s falsehoods.

“Political leaders like Donald Trump have the right to express their opinions,” he says, “but they shouldn’t be able to exploit social media platforms to amplify their message without restriction when they are making false or baseless claims. Tech companies need to intervene and moderate content on their platforms.”

There’s also a case for keeping Trump on Facebook while including fact checking information on his posts. "Letting him speak with a strong health warning next to it, is arguably more powerful than actually just banning or blocking him,” says Jonathan Bright, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. 

If the company were to ban him, Trump and his supporters could migrate on mass to other sites such as Parler such as Parler, a “free speech” network. There are already signs of this happening, with the platform topping  app charts since Trump’s defeat. 

"I think it’s becoming more and more likely [Trump] will go to one of these new platforms like Parler, where he will be able to see and do whatever he wants," says New York University’s Barrett. 

When ring wing figures have tried to recreate their support on mainstream social networks on Parler, they haven’t always been successful. Eric Trump, the President’s son, might have 1.4 million followers on the platform, but that’s still three million less than his Twitter account.

Any action taken by Facebook to limit Trump’s account risks upsetting conservative politicians who already believe the social network is suppressing right wing voices.

“It will put Facebook in the crosshairs of the 71 million people that voted for Trump,” says Abishur Prakash, the head of the Centre for Innovating the Future. “And … many GOP lawmakers may view Facebook’s moderation of Trump as censorship.”

Facebook’s dilemma is clear: Leave Trump’s account online without restrictions and it may become the most powerful spreader of misinformation on the social network. But ban Trump and Facebook risks finding itself in the middle of a political storm.

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