How the Trump Social-Media Ban Paid Off for Trump, Platforms

From the business side,

Facebook,

Instagram,

Twitter

and YouTube have all been able to say they took action against one of the most powerful voices on their platforms—after years of criticism that they failed to aggressively apply their rules to their highest-profile users.

Across the platforms, Mr. Trump had amassed approximately 150 million followers—including 35 million on Facebook and 88 million on Twitter—which put him among the most-watched world leaders.

But for the companies, banning his accounts hasn’t appeared to dent their traffic. Facebook and YouTube don’t report engagement for their specific units, but Twitter’s number of users has continued to climb.

Since his social-media ban—just days before he left the White House—mentions of Mr. Trump on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have decreased 88%, according to Zignal Labs, a company that analyzes content on social media.

Mr. Trump has become eager to restore his online presence and announced plans to launch his own platform. But even without the social-media tools that helped ignite his rapid political rise, Mr. Trump’s influence remains strong and in some ways has grown.

The ban has been a rallying point among the former president’s supporters. And while Mr. Trump’s poll ratings remain more negative than positive, public opinion about the former branding magnate and reality TV star has improved significantly since he was removed from social media after his supporters—echoing many of his false claims about election fraud—stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, seeking to overturn his election loss. Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., suspended his account on Jan. 7, and Twitter Inc. banned him on Jan. 8.

One year after the violent riot in the Capitol, roughly 52% of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of Mr. Trump compared with 43% who viewed him favorably, according to a FiveThirtyEight.com average of national polls. That 9-point gap compared with a nearly 20-point spread in Mr. Trump’s favorability rating a year earlier, according to the same polling average.

Current and former aides to Mr. Trump said the shift in popularity was largely attributable to the former president’s diminished social-media presence. His constant, often provocative tweets helped galvanize supporters but provided steady ammunition for his detractors. During his time in office, even his most ardent supporters told pollsters they wished Mr. Trump wouldn’t broadcast each grievance and respond to every criticism.

Guests posed with cutouts of the former president and first lady, at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in October.



Photo:

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sidelining Mr. Trump from social media has left much of the political spotlight to President Biden, whose approval rating has dropped sharply during the past year.

“I don’t know a single person in Trump world who regrets that this has happened—not a single one,” one Trump adviser said.

Researchers who study social media said the removal of influential social-media accounts that spread false narratives has reduced the popularity of some of the content on the platforms that the companies deem toxic, although many people have also expressed concern that tech companies get to make these decisions.

“Removing a verified person who had a media presence upped the stakes for the platforms—it was their last stand against misinformation,” said Jonathan Morgan, chief executive of Yonder, a company that tracks online narratives.

The companies will face questions about whether to reinstate the former president, particularly if he decides to seek his party’s presidential nomination again in 2024. Facebook has said it would revisit its decision in January 2023, but social-media executives have insisted their calculations won’t be influenced by Mr. Trump’s political decisions. Mr. Trump has been eager to announce a 2024 bid, according to aides, but advisers so far have persuaded him to wait until after the midterm elections in November to formally decide.

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While these companies have banned Mr. Trump, they have continued to sell advertising to him, as well as to his opponents and allies who have made him a key part of their own political ads.

Facebook and

Alphabet Inc.’s

Google have sold Mr. Trump’s two political-action committees more than $2 million in ads during the past year, according to AdImpact, a company that tracks advertising. Social-media companies have various restrictions on their advertisements, and some ban using footage of Mr. Trump or recordings of his voice.

Still, more than 100 candidates, issues groups and political committees spent $11.5 million on Facebook ads in 2021 that mention Mr. Trump, according to AdImpact.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent more than $3.5 million on Facebook ads that aimed to raise money for the group by promoting Mr. Trump’s plans for a social-media venture. Several groups attempted to leverage Mr. Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

“IS TRUMP THE TRUE PRESIDENT?” Mr. Trump’s political committee Save America asked in one spot. “The 2020 election was potentially the MOST CORRUPT in the history of our country.”

Facebook has rejected some ads from Save America for violating its policies.

Mr. Trump initially enjoyed his break from Twitter and relied on emailed statements edited by his press team.

“It’s really better than Twitter because I don’t do the stupid retweets that people don’t like—the retweets are the ones that get you,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in March for the book “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.” “And I saved a lot of time. I didn’t realize you can spend a lot of time on this. Now I actually have time to make phone calls, and do other things and read papers that I wouldn’t read. And with me, if I put a comma out of place or I accidentally misspelled a word, it was like the world coming down.”

But lately, Mr. Trump has been keen on restoring his social-media presence, his advisers said. He proudly compared his extensive following with those of foreign leaders during private Oval Office meetings, aides said. During his four years in the White House, he never tired of watching how quickly one of his Twitter posts would rocket from the tips of his fingers to headlines on cable networks and news websites.

He sued the tech companies in July, complaining he was wrongly censored. In October, Mr. Trump announced a new digital-media venture aimed at restoring his online following. Part of that effort would be the creation of Truth Social, a social network being developed by the Trump Media & Technology Group and

Digital World Acquisition Corp.

, a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. The platform’s launch date is unclear.

Before his January 2021 ban, the companies had been struggling for months to combat Mr. Trump’s baseless allegations of a stolen election and grappled with how to moderate the then-president’s content in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections. Twitter, for example, repeatedly labeled or removed content from Mr. Trump that the company deemed to incite violence or spread misinformation about the election.

Longtime campaign aides

Brad Parscale

and Gary Coby feared that social-media companies would limit the reach of Mr. Trump, whose first campaign relied heavily on Facebook data to locate and target supporters. They and Republican National Committee Chairwoman

Ronna McDaniel

oversaw a multimillion-dollar effort to build a list of emails and phone numbers for supporters so the campaign could directly contact them with fundraising appeals, voter-turnout programs and statements.

The list now includes about 50 million emails, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Trump has relied on the list during the past year with a relentless fundraising program that raised more than $56 million in online donations during the first half of 2021, and about as much in the second half, according to people familiar with the efforts. The fundraising committee’s year-end financial reports aren’t due until the end of the month.

Write to Michael C. Bender at [email protected] and Georgia Wells at [email protected]

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