In June of 2020, a Facebook account entitled “Will they suspend me” published a post that copied, word for word, Trump’s infamous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” response to protests for racial justice. Within a week of publication, the post was flagged for violating Facebook’s community standards and the account barred from posting or commenting for 24 hours, under threat of permanent suspension. Trump’s original content, however, remains up and unaltered to this day, a decision that Facebook continues to support despite widespread internal and external condemnation. This is not an isolated occurrence: many accounts have been deleted or suspended for echoing the president’s rhetoric, though he has never faced the same action.
At the heart of these juxtaposed responses is the fundamental fact that Trump receives preferential treatment on social media due to his status as president. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has made over 22,000 false or misleading statements since he became president, almost 4,000 of which came from Twitter. Some of these inaccurate claims have been repeated hundreds of times both on and offline. Though a number of his falsehoods violate the community standard guidelines of Facebook and Twitter, they have not censored his posts nor removed his posting privileges. Instead, they flag particular statements as “disputed” and guide readers to alternative sources of information.
Now, with less than two months left in his presidency and both his personal and political social media accounts as active as ever, it is worth considering what will happen when his term ends.
Public interest exceptions to community standards guidelines
Right now, Trump’s social media is protected from deletion by the platforms’ policies that grant him public interest exceptions to content moderation. For example, Twitter’s policies state that tweets which violate content rules may remain up if they “serve the public interest,” a moniker which they apply to tweets by political candidates and leaders currently in office (although the company notes it is less likely to make these exceptions in cases of statements advocating or condoning violence or terrorism).
When questioned during the recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Section 230, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explicitly stated that his company has not censored Trump, which he defined as completely removing tweets, and has instead applied labels to his posts due to his standing as a political leader. But Twitter has already confirmed that the @realDonaldTrump account will be beholden to the same regulations as all other nonexempt users after President-elect Biden’s inauguration and the turnover of @POTUS, @FLOTUS, and @WhiteHouse accounts to a new administration.
Facebook also allows otherwise objectionable content “if it is newsworthy and in the public interest.” This allowance is not dependent on being an officeholder or candidate and it is entirely possible that Trump will keep the same protection. Indeed, in a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on content moderation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted Facebook plans to continue the sheltered treatment of Trump even after he leaves public office. Given these different standards, it is entirely possible that a Trump tweet would be taken down, while an identical Facebook post could remain.
The upcoming transition
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will take the oath of office and become the 46th president of the United States. Donald Trump will no longer have the title, status, or protections of presidential office.
What does this transition mean for official social media accounts? If the 2017 Obama-to-Trump shift is any indicator, we can expect changes starting on Inauguration Day. We anticipate, as was the case then, that the @POTUS Twitter account will be expunged of all tweets from Trump’s presidency and an archival account set up by the National Archives and Records Administration—likely with the handle @POTUS45 after the current @POTUS44 set up for former President Obama. Trump’s personal Twitter account will not receive the same treatment, but given that he has largely used @POTUS to retweet his personal Tweets, the content will still remain.
Other official Twitter accounts such as @FLOTUS, @WhiteHouse, and @PressSec will receive the same treatment. We can also expect to see similar actions taken on other platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Following these changes, President-elect Biden and the relevant members of his team will take control. It is worth noting that our only reference point for this digital transition comes from the presidential change in 2017, in which a smooth transferal was one of President Obama’s top goals. Whether that is the case in 2021, however, is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, both Twitter and Facebook have confirmed that they will transfer official governmental accounts to the Biden administration on the 20th of January.
By one estimate, if Trump spends 2 minutes on each tweet and 10 seconds on each retweet, he will have spent almost 476 hours—1.6% of his presidency—tweeting between taking office in January of 2017 and May 2020. There is no doubt that Trump as a private citizen will retain an active public presence in 2021 and beyond, and that he will continue tweeting and posting. While we cannot know for sure what the future holds for his public pronouncements, his actions allow us to reliably presume that he will continue to lie and distort. For example, a New York Times investigation found that, over a one-week period, one-third of Trump’s tweets contained falsehoods. Similarly, From November 3-5, 2020, during the national election, Twitter labeled 38 percent of Trump’s tweets (11 out of 29) as misleading. We anticipate that similar distortions will continue to persist after Biden’s inauguration.
Three options for social media companies
Social media companies appear to have three options for censorship once Trump returns to civilian life. First, they could maintain a libertarian stance: granting his accounts continued public interest exceptions and allowing him to say whatever he wants. Even though he would no longer be in office, he is a political leader whose words impact the public, and millions will still want to know what he has to say. This approach is similar to the one that Facebook appears to be adopting. Still, these decisions could facilitate the continued spread of hate speech and false information, perhaps even at a greater rate once Trump is free from the constraints of public office.
Second, the companies could remove his public interest exception and treat him like any regular user. When he utters falsehoods or makes inflammatory statements, they could remove the tweets or temporarily suspend his account. Indeed, some Democrats, such as Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) have called for greater oversight of his provocative rhetoric, explicitly asking Twitter and Facebook’s CEOs to monitor his accounts post-inauguration. This option carries its own risks: social media fact-checks can further polarize Americans than if posts were unaltered, but even in the face of these risks, the importance of maintaining some baseline of truth cannot be overstated.
Third, these firms could permanently remove accounts on the grounds he is a repeat offender. Using the “three strikes and you are out” principle, they could label him incapable of rhetorical rehabilitation and revoke his posting privileges completely. This approach is both extreme and incredibly risky: it would move Trump off mainstream platforms and force him to rely on newly emerging sites such as the conservative platform Parler, which would drastically reinforce the partisan echo chamber effect promulgated by social media.
Trump’s salvation or death knell
Of course, Trump could render any of these possible limitations moot by declaring his 2024 presidential candidacy right away as some sources suggest he will. That would put him squarely back in the protected space of a political candidate and allow social media sites to continue to distribute his content around the world. Still, barring any other major changes such as indictment and incarceration, we can expect a digital transferal of accounts and loss of public-interest protections on Twitter. Social media companies must then fully decide how they want to handle the former president. Nevertheless, they must tread lightly—their handling of this transition will have profound consequences for future national discourse.
Facebook is a general, unrestricted donor to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations and conclusions in this piece are solely those of the author and not influenced by any donation.