Facebook's decision to suspend President Trump's account has already helped make his post-presidency relatively quiet. But if the Facebook Oversight Board announces this week that the ban will be permanent, the much more pressing question is: What would that do to his 2024 candidacy?
Yeah, we said it.
Like it or not — and more than 81 million Americans almost certainly don't like it — Trump is still both fundraising and speaking like someone who plans to run for president in the next election, and early polls have shown he would handily win his party's nomination if he does. That shred of uncertainty significantly raises the stakes of the board's decision, which it plans to announce Wednesday and which Facebook has pledged to implement.
With this case, the board is not only making an unprecedented call about whether the man who was once president of the United States has access to Facebook's audience of 3 billion people. It's also deciding whether a man who could become president again will ever have access to that audience — a decision that could influence Trump's very ability to run and win.
"The idea of Trump running in 2024 is obviously something they're contemplating," said Kate Klonick, assistant professor at St. John's University Law School, who has studied and written about the Oversight Board since its inception. "But even if he wasn't, I think the board is probably contemplating the effect of their decision on any global leader."
For better and worse, Facebook has played a vital role in every election since the 2008 race between Barack Obama and John McCain. But no candidate has squeezed quite as much out of that platform as Trump, who not only ran an aggressive advertising campaign to help clinch his 2016 victory, but whose posts as president ranked among the top 10 in the U.S. on a near-daily basis. Without access to that audience, any campaign, but particularly a campaign as dependent on Facebook as Trump's, would be substantially diminished.
Strictly speaking, the future prospects of any one political candidate shouldn't matter to the board, said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who has written extensively about the board's decisions. "The rules the board is supposed to be considering shouldn't be affected by the potential political effects of the decision," Douek said, noting that the board is supposed to make its decisions based on how well Facebook lived up to its own rules, its stated values and international human rights standards.
If the board made special accommodations for anyone who might become a political figure in the future, that would effectively preclude Facebook from banning anyone, Douek argued. And yet, she agreed with Klonick that Trump's future may well factor into the board's decision. "The board members are humans. They read the same news you and I do," Douek said. "It would be impossible for them to not have that in the back of their minds, as well."
When Facebook suspended Trump, Republicans had just lost power. Yielding to Democratic calls to ban him from the platform seemed like a politically pragmatic move, unprecedented as it was. But less than six months later, in the face of Trump's continued flirtation with a 2024 bid, that decision looks substantially messier.
The question is whether that messiness will influence the board's decision, and if so, how?
In a world where Trump became the Republican nominee for president again, it could be hard for Facebook to justify a continued suspension. Would the company really be able to say it was living up to its values of free expression if it silenced a major candidate for the American presidency, while giving the other candidates free rein?
On the other hand, after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly accused Trump of inciting a riot to overthrow a Democratic election, it would be impossible for Facebook to claim it prioritizes safety if it welcomed Trump back, effectively handing him the keys to the crime scene just as he was reasserting his political power.
These are questions that Twitter and other platforms that have given Trump the boot will inevitably have to grapple with too. But unlike Facebook, they haven't set up a pseudo-independent oversight board whose decisions they've pledged to honor.
Which presents a third option: The board could issue its decision on Wednesday, and then, depending on how many problems that decision poses for Facebook, Facebook could just change its mind. The board, after all, is a creation of Facebook's own making. It didn't exist two years ago. It will only continue to exist as intended if Facebook decides that it should.
Klonick, for one, believes it's unlikely that Facebook would act unilaterally to undermine the board's authority. "They put so much money and time into this," she said. "For them to pay no attention to the board is not in their interest." More likely, she said, is a situation where Facebook asks the board to revisit their decision if the circumstances under which they made that earlier decision change.
Whatever the board decides Wednesday, it will be playing a hand in history. The decision won't just dictate whether Trump resumes his daily diatribes on Facebook. It will impact his ability to play kingmaker in the 2022 midterms and even run for office in 2024. But more than that, it could have a global ripple effect, setting new precedents for how Facebook treats other world leaders who have repeatedly broken its rules.
"To me the most interesting part of the decision will be the recommendations for what they're going to do with other world leaders," Douek said. "Yes, the American political story is very important. But the global ramifications of this decision are really huge. I hope that doesn't get lost."