Politics

The other reason Facebook silenced Trump? Republicans just lost their power.

Yes, the president's acts were unprecedented. But Facebook is also preparing for a new Washington, controlled by Democrats.

Mark Zuckerberg, Joel Kaplan and Andy Stone walking down a hall

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook's head of public policy Joel Kaplan have spent four years bending to conservatives' demands. Now, Facebook is bending in a new direction.

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

In his post announcing that President Trump would be blocked from posting on Facebook until at least Inauguration Day, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the president's incitement of the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday was "fundamentally different" than any of the offenses he's committed on Facebook before. "The risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great," he wrote on Thursday.

That may be true. But there's another reason why — after four years spent insisting that a tech company has no business shutting up the president of the United States, no matter how much he threatens to shoot protesters or engages in voter suppression — Zuckerberg finally had a change of heart: Republicans just lost power.

Since at least 2016, when conservatives first set off on their crusade against Big Tech, armed with spurious claims of liberal bias, Facebook's leaders have cowered in fear of the right. That year, after Gizmodo reported that Facebook had kept some conservative news out of its trending topics feature, Zuckerberg invited a ragtag delegation of conservative pundits including Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson to Facebook's headquarters to extend an olive branch.

From that day forward, Facebook has repeatedly sought to avoid the right's ire, elevating Joel Kaplan, a former George W. Bush staffer and himself a Brooks Brothers rioter, to the company's highest public policy position to navigate a Washington that was no longer starry-eyed about Silicon Valley. During Trump's tenure and under a Republican-controlled Congress, Facebook refused to prohibit white nationalist content and conspiracy theories like QAnon, shelved plans to promote healthier political dialogue for fear it would stoke Republican outrage and lavished special treatment on far-right pages that repeatedly violated its policies. All the while, conservative voices dominated the site in the U.S.

None of it helped, of course. Zuckerberg was still regularly excoriated by Republican members of the House and Senate in public hearings over imagined slights and asked to explain again and again why a given political ad had been taken down or why Diamond and Silk's Facebook traffic was falling. In those moments, Zuckerberg would steel himself and politely vow to look into the matter, bending over backward to prove he was taking each bad faith argument to heart.

But, now that the people of Georgia have spoken, Democrats are about to assume control of both the White House and the Senate. So it stands to reason then that Zuckerberg is beginning to bend in a new direction.

That fact didn't go unnoticed by some on the left, like former White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri, who tweeted Thursday, "It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump's destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them."

"Most big content moderation decisions are a reaction to policymakers, negative press coverage or advertisers, and we're seeing that play out this week," said Nu Wexler, a former policy spokesperson for Facebook.

That's not to say Zuckerberg was wrong or lying about the unprecedented and dangerous nature of Trump's actions on Wednesday. Facebook has historically avoided touching his posts, in part out of respect for the office of president and the significance that the president's words are supposed to hold in this democracy. But as Trump used the platform to express his love and understanding for the Capitol rioters and again repeat the baseless claims that sent them to the Capitol in the first place, he shattered the last democratic norm that Facebook was supposedly protecting. In muzzling Trump for the rest of his presidency and possibly beyond, Facebook has taken stronger action than either Twitter or YouTube have so far, though both companies have removed some Trump posts and warned that the president risks permanent bans if he commits more violations in the future.

That's the generous read on Facebook's actions, at least. Another read reveals more cynical motives. Unlike Republicans on the Hill, who have fixated on how they and their conservative constituents are supposedly silenced, Democrats have spent the last four years fixated on how real-world harm manifests from Facebook's decision not to silence people more. But with the possible exceptions of the shooting at a Congressional baseball game in 2017 and the mail bombing attempts by the so-called MAGA bomber in 2018, rarely have the real-world repercussions of allowing people to become radicalized by lies online hit as close to Congress' home as they did on Wednesday.

Facebook's leaders, including Zuckerberg, know Washington well enough by now to expect this week's chaos to become Democrats' animating issue for the foreseeable future. "The Mazie Hironos of the world are definitely going to call for hearings on online harms, and they should," said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which researches disinformation online. "But now, it's gonna be like: 'Your platform coordinated an attempt on my life. What do you have to say?'"

And in those moments, Zuckerberg will steel himself once more and politely list all the steps Facebook has taken since that awful day to try to control the chaos, including, at least temporarily, banning Trump. Republicans will rant, as Democrats have done so often these last four years, about how the party holding the gavel is trying to force Facebook's hand and cow the company into carrying out their wishes. But without control of Congress or the White House, Republicans won't be able to do much about it. So Zuckerberg will hope instead that, at least in the eyes of the new people in power, these actions will help make up for the last four years. And he will almost certainly be wrong.

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