NEW YORK – The decision by Facebook's parent company to soon reinstate Donald Trump's account comes at a critical moment for the former president as he tries to build campaign momentum for a return to the White House.
Reclaiming his social media megaphone could open an important new stream of revenue for the 2024 contest’s only declared candidate, whose campaign has faced criticism for its lackluster launch.
Trump is considering a return to Twitter, as well, rejoining both of the social media giants that he used to great effect to widely and personally connect with his supporters in previous campaigning.
In considering a return to the platforms that shunned him, Trump is essentially recognizing that the social media company he launched last year, Truth Social, pales in comparison to the reach of the highest profile platforms. He currently has 4.84 million followers on Truth Social, dramatically fewer than the 87.7 million who follow his account on Twitter, the 34 million who follow him on Facebook and the 23.4 million who follow him on Meta's Instagram.
Trump’s Twitter account was unlocked in November, shortly after Elon Musk purchased the company, but Trump has refrained from using it, insisting that he is happier on Truth.
But while Twitter was long Trump's instrument for shouting his opinions — and received far more attention — for his new campaign, Facebook is ultimately about money.
The 2016 campaign of the business executive and reality TV star was a trailblazer when it came to harnessing the power of Facebook’s digital advertising tools. And his 2016 and 2020 campaigns spent millions on ads that were key to his small-dollar fundraising efforts.
The decision on Wednesday by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, to reinstate him, is likely to be a similar boon to his current campaign’s efforts to raise millions, as well as to collect emails and identify voters.
“I think first and foremost this is about fundraising for Trump,” said Katie Harbath, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served as Facebook’s former public policy director. “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.”
During his suspension from Facebook, Trump’s political operation continued to fundraise on the site but couldn’t run ads directly from him or in his voice — appeals that Harbath said are much more powerful.
“Personal appeals are always the best,” she said. “And folks haven’t seen that in their feeds in a long time.”
The reinstatement comes at an opportune time for Trump, who has struggled in the opening months of his 2024 White House campaign to reclaim the energy of his previous two bids. He's planning his first official campaign event Saturday, with plans to visit two early-voting states, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
But even as Trump and his team mull how best to harness the social media brands that helped power his initial rise, there could be significant hurdles.
The former president created Truth Social, a Twitter lookalike, after he was suspended from Twitter and Facebook. He usually posts on his social media site multiple times a day, sharing thoughts, insults and campaign videos and reposting messages from his supporters, just as he had on Twitter.
As part of his deal with Digital World Acquisition Corp. to take Truth Social public, Trump agreed — so he wouldn’t compete against his own company — that it would be the “first channel” for “any and all social media communications and posts coming from his personal profile,” according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last May.
That includes an exclusivity clause in which the former president was “generally obligated to make any social media post on TruthSocial and may not make the same post on another social media site for 6 hours” for a period of 18 months, beginning Dec. 22, 2021.
It adds, however, that, Trump “may make a post from a personal account related to political messaging, political fundraising or get-out-the-vote efforts on any social media site at any time.”
Some Trump allies believe that that line gives him license to post political messages anytime he’d like, though he continues to abstain.
Former Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, CEO of the Trump Media & Technology Group, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the SEC filing makes Trump’s obligations clear, but he declined to elaborate. Neither Digital World nor its CEO Patrick Orlando responded to requests for comment.
“I think this is less of a legal question than an ego question,” said Harbath, who expects Trump to begin advertising on Facebook before he resumes messaging. “The man likes to put on a show.”
Questions also remain about whether Digital World will get approval from federal stock market regulators to join with Truth Social and go public. Without the merger, Truth Social and its biggest owner, Trump, won’t get shares in the combined company potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Since rumors began spreading of Trump possibly posting again on rival social media platforms, stock in Digital World has plunged. The potential Truth Social partner is down 30% since Twitter reinstated Trump’s personal account last year even as the broader comparative market has barely moved.
Trump has so far insisted he is sticking with Truth, saying he prefers the engagement on the site, where fringe content dominates.
But Trump in recent weeks has been talking about returning to Twitter, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations. That has included discussing possible first tweets that would generate maximum impact, NBC News first reported.
A Trump campaign spokesperson declined to discuss Trump’s social media plans including his plans for a possible return.
But as Meta mulled its decision, Trump's campaign lobbied for his reinstatement.
In a letter this month, lawyer Scott Gast pressed the company to allow Trump's return, arguing that continuing the ban “would basically constitute, in the words of Mr. Clegg, a deliberate effort by a private company to silence Mr. Trump’s political voice."
That's Nick Clegg, Meta's vice president of global affairs.
“Moreover, every day that President Trump’s political voice remains silenced furthers an inappropriate interference in the American political and election process,” wrote lawyer Gast.
Trump also faces potential limitations on the content he can share on the platform.
In a post announcing Meta's decision, Clegg wrote that the “public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box.”
At the same time, however, he said the company would be putting new “guardrails” in place and that Trump would face additional suspensions should he post “further violating content.”
And if Trump or anyone else posts material that doesn’t violate Facebook’s rules but is otherwise harmful — such as content that tries to delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to the QAnon conspiracy theory — Clegg said Meta will act to limit that material’s reach.
It could also temporarily restrict Trump's access to its advertising tools.
Ortutay reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Bernard Condon in New York and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.