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Trump's pending return to Facebook is more about cash than speech

Meta allowing Donald Trump to regain his accounts offers him a renewed platform for fundraising ahead of 2024.

We knew it was likely coming, but it still feels unsettling that former President Donald Trump will soon regain access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts. Meta, the parent company of the two platforms, claims that “new guardrails” are in place to keep the former president in line. I have doubts about that, but I’m less concerned about the actual content that Trump posts or his campaign puts out in his name than the financial windfall he could reap.

As The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel argues, Facebook is no longer the culture-shaping juggernaut it once was. Both Trump and Facebook “appear to have lost the juice,” he writes. “Many people still support Trump, and many people still use Facebook products, but the shine is gone — and that matters.” Trump himself seemed to acknowledge the site’s recent decline. “FACEBOOK, which has lost Billions of Dollars in value since ‘deplatforming’ your favorite President, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account,” he crowed on his TruthSocial platform. “Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution!”

The biggest effect of Trump’s return to Facebook isn’t the reopened fire hose of lies that got him suspended, but a renewed stream of cash to his 2024 coffers.

From where I’m sitting, the biggest effect of Trump’s return to Facebook isn’t the reopened fire hose of lies that got him suspended, but a renewed stream of cash to his 2024 coffers. It’s true that the Trump political machine already has a ton of money in the bank — sort of. As of late November, the various political action committees either controlled by Trump or supporting him were sitting on roughly $95 million. But as The Guardian recently reported, only a small fraction of that amount can be used in direct support of Trump’s campaigning. His Make America Great Again PAC, which was born out of his previous campaign committee, had about $35 million cash on hand at the end of last year’s midterms.

Moreover, Trump’s digital fundraising has been lagging behind his previous runs. By the end of the most recent Federal Election Commission reporting cycle on Nov. 28, his new campaign vehicle — Donald J. Trump for President 2024, Inc. — had brought in about $4.1 million on the heels of his “low-energy” kickoff rally. That’s a marked decline from even a year before, when his various efforts were pulling in unheard-of sums for a former president. The evidence likely points to fatigue among small donors, many of whom Trump has repeatedly milked for cash using shady recurring payment practices.

Which brings us back to Facebook, where microtargeting supporters with ads was key to Trump’s small-donor strategies in 2016 and 2020. Those ads both directly solicited Facebook users and gathered contact information that could later be used to hit up supporters for money.

A need for donations was almost certainly a factor in the campaign’s petitioning Meta to restore his accounts last week. “I think first and foremost this is about fundraising for Trump,” Katie Harbath, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and Facebook’s former public policy director, told The Washington Post. “He wants to continue to have access to get emails and addresses for fundraising, which is something the platform was always really important to the campaign for.”

Trump’s return seems like a prime opportunity for both parties to bring in some needed extra money.

And a financial symbiosis with Trump is potentially potent for Facebook. The platform’s grip on the advertising market has weakened since 2020 as Apple has clamped down on the amount of data that would be available for the social media platform’s targeting systems. On the flip side, an analysis from The Markup found that in just a few weeks during the 2020 election cycle, Trump’s campaign spent millions in targeted ads on Facebook. Trump’s return seems like a prime opportunity for both parties to bring in some needed extra money.

Meta, in its post announcing the lift on Trump’s ban, said that should Trump abuse his posting privileges, it could “temporarily restrict access to our advertising tools” and may stop posts that are technically allowed under its community standards from “being recommended or run as ads.” Clear and repeated violations of those standards could end in his being “suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation.”

That might be enough to throttle some of the spiciest of posts Trump could make. That having been said, there’s been no shortage of evidence that Facebook in particular has bent over backward to avoid offending conservative politicians, even as Republicans claim the tech world is biased against them. And given Facebook’s rather lax stance on truth in political ads in general, this decision overall means there’s a lot of wiggle room for Trump to make a lot of money based on outright lies.