Facebook's Oversight Board on Wednesday essentially punted the decision back to the company on whether to eventually allow former President Donald Trump back on Facebook and Instagram. What the social media giant decides in the coming months will likely have major consequences for Trump's political power.
"It could be a make-or-break moment for Trump's political future," said Eric Wilson, a Republican political technologist.
That's because being on Facebook is crucial for modern-day political campaigns, as a majority of Americans use the platform and those who do log into it multiple times daily. Facebook has become crucial for raising money and for targeting supporters and swing voters, something the Trump campaign did in unprecedented ways. The majority of online ad dollars go to either Facebook or Google.
"Even with all the resources Donald Trump has," Wilson said, "Facebook is so much bigger than that, that you can't get around it."
In a statement responding to the Oversight Board's non-decision decision, Trump, who remains banned on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, called the stances of the social media giants a "total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country." He also promised a degree of retribution, threatening that they "must pay a political price."
Trump's frustration is with good reason. Since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, his ability to communicate directly with the public has been limited. On Tuesday, Trump added a blog-like feature — with no comments section — to his post-presidency website. He is still promising to launch his own social media platform.
The board's decision also comes as Trump's popularity seems to have softened further since leaving office. An NBC News poll released last week found that just a third of Americans had a favorable opinion of him, which was down several points from January. The survey also showed, for the first time, 50% of Republicans said they considered themselves more supporters of the GOP than Trump.
Still, Trump's grip on the party is clear. Republicans on Capitol Hill appear ready to oust Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from her House leadership post — and it's largely about Trump. Cheney voted for Trump's impeachment and continues to be critical of Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
"The highway" Trump's car drove on
Facebook has been particularly important for Trump. In the months after he was elected president in 2016, Brad Parscale, Trump's digital director for that winning campaign, called the platform "the highway in which his car drove on."
Trump's campaign used Facebook to fundraise and spread its message — at times with false and odious information — in extraordinary ways to help win in 2016 and come close in 2020. Trump has the strongest fundraising list of any Republican, operatives say, and so much of how Trump was able to raise small-dollar donations was through Facebook. And Facebook's tools for microtargeting are like no other platform.
Without Facebook, a significant revenue valve would be shut off for Trump, imperiling a 2024 presidential bid, if he decides to run again. While the Trump team spent more than $100 million combined on Facebook ads in his two campaigns, it generated hundreds of millions more in campaign contributions — and who knows how many votes.
"It's very important for Trump and his political future, and his allies' political futures, to get back on the platform," Wilson, the political technologist, said. He added that Facebook is the best resource for "identifying people who have expressed interest, are engaged in the content, who donate and volunteer on campaigns. It gives the ability to target them and in a specific way. It's so fine-tuned. ... It's a great asset for campaigns and political advertisers."
A permanent Trump ban from Facebook would almost certainly have ramifications for next year's midterm elections as well. It could mean that candidates he endorsed wouldn't be able to use videos and possibly statements from the former president. That could significantly hamper the strength of a Trump endorsement.
But, in another way, Republicans overall are likely to benefit from the extended decision period because they have been gaining attention and fundraising relentlessly off of "Big Tech" and what they see as social media bias. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has even written a book called The Tyranny of Big Tech.
There has also been a conservative backlash at the state level. Just last week, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature passed a measure aimed at limiting social media companies' ability to censor candidates that stand for election in Florida and prevent them from deplatforming candidates.
Hard to compete with Facebook
Trump's YouTube channel is still down, and he is permanently banned from Twitter. Twitter has said it's not going back on its decision, and that's significant for Trump because that's how he was able to drive the news narrative.
Trump has reportedly said he wouldn't go back on Twitter even if he were allowed back, but that may be a little like telling people you quit when you were fired.
And while Trump was able to get lots of attention for his tweets, Twitter can't compete with Facebook's reach, targeting and potential for raising money.
Facebook and other social media platforms removed or flagged many of Trump's posts over the years, but his "decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters" during and after the Jan. 6 attack is what led to his suspension, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a statement the day after the violence.
The Oversight Board criticized Facebook for violating "its own rules by imposing a suspension that was 'indefinite'," said the company "cannot make up the rules as it goes" and that it should "conduct a review into its contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud and political tensions that led to the events of January 6."
With regard to Trump's suspension, the board set a timeline for Facebook to make a decision: "Within 6 months of today, Facebook must review this matter and decide a new penalty that reflects its rules, the severity of the violation, and prospect of future harm. Facebook can either impose a time-limited suspension or account deletion."
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in March that Trump's channel "remains suspended due to the risk of incitement to violence." She said YouTube would look to law enforcement for when that risk is less elevated.
That may offer Facebook something of a roadmap, considering it is weighing what to do next and tried to have its company-appointed Oversight Board make the decision.
In response to Wednesday's ruling, Facebook said it would "determine an action that is clear and proportionate."
In the meantime, a significant piece of Trump's political fortunes hangs in the balance.
Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.