The Facebook Ban Hurt Trump in Surprising Ways


STRONGSVILLE, Ohio—Joe Poldruhi wasn’t sure what to believe about his local congressional race. He hadn’t heard it straight from Donald Trump.

I had come to Ohio’s 16th District to report on Trump’s vengeance-fueled decision to endorse a political novice named Max Miller in his effort to primary the Republican incumbent — one of the 10 GOP House members who had voted in January to impeach him.

“The little bit that I know about him being endorsed by Trump, I’m not sure I completely understand that. I don’t know if it’s somebody in the Trump campaign that’s saying that or what,” said Poldruhi, 55, a maintenance man who told me he prefers Right Side Broadcasting on YouTube to any particular news network on TV. He’s also a consumer, and disseminator, too, of election and pandemic disinformation on Facebook. But Miller’s challenge of Anthony Gonzalez? “I’m just not sure,” he said.

Shannon Burns, the head of the Strongsville GOP, was surprised I was surprised. “The Republican base,” he told me after the group’s packed monthly meeting, “is not watching any of the traditional media.”

One reason Poldruhi hadn’t heard from Trump, of course, is that Trump has been banned from major social media for almost four months for his role in stoking the insurrection and the storming of the Capitol by his supporters. On Wednesday morning, Facebook is set to announce the decision of its so-called oversight board on whether or not he can start again using the world’s biggest and most powerful social media platform — to communicate directly with millions of people like Poldruhi.

One could do worse than the grassroots gathering here to get a window into what’s really at stake. I was struck by how many people at an event meant for energized Republicans seemed to be only vaguely aware of the endorsement Trump had made in a race smack in their area. Trump’s announcement, after all, in late February in an email blast from his Palm Beach perch, had been covered by Fox News, by POLITICO, by the local Plain Dealer newspaper, and by other outlets spanning the ideological spectrum. It was the opening salvo in an expected national campaign of retribution — Trump gunning for every member of Congress who had attempted to oust him.

Evidently, though, with some local Republicans, it had hardly registered.


That gap served as a stark reminder of the power of Trump’s incredibly direct connection to his supporters — and perhaps the hidden weakness as well of a strategy that relies so heavily on social media platforms like Facebook.

Trump allies say he will be able to be a winner no matter what: Even if Facebook keeps him off, he will wield “cancelled” as a cudgel; back on, he can declare victory, crowing about the caving of “Big Tech” titans. “It’s win-win for DJT either way,” former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg told me. “The movement he built is omnipresent throughout social media, like a MAGA blockchain. Trump’s power throughout social media is no longer any one verified account,” fellow former adviser Taylor Budowich said. “To really cancel Trump, Facebook and other platforms would have to cancel a majority of their most engaged users.”

Others, though, from internet experts and analysts to political professionals from both parties, remain almost shocked at the extent to which Trump’s been quieted by his Silicon Valley silencing — stripped of his capacity to say exactly what he wants to say whenever he wants to say it straight to what was his aggregate more than 100 million followers on YouTube and Twitter and Facebook.

“He’ll try to spin this thing either way, but the problem is he needs the outlet,” longtime New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told me. “He is hampered existentially because he cannot attack an enemy in an unfettered fashion to a particular population on a constant basis.”

“It’s really important that he have access to that audience,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist who led Marco Rubio’s digital efforts in his 2016 presidential campaign. “The decision on Wednesday is consequential for Trump’s political future — if you’re not there, and not able to shape that conversation, it’s catastrophic.”

“He’d certainly,” said Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble and the co-founder of Upworthy, “have to be a very different candidate without those platforms.”

He would have to reach his voters and would-be voters not on social media but through more mainstream channels. And for Trump, based on what I heard in Ohio, those channels are broken — because he broke them.

“It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Wilson said, “if you tell your supporters not to trust the media.”

Facebook always was hugely important to Trump in his political rise and reign. Twitter, which has booted him forever, tended to be more front and center — it was for Trump a rough, running focus group, and a real-time, utterly un-private diary. But if Twitter was the loudspeaker, Facebook was the less flashy but nonetheless critical organizing, advertising and fundraising infrastructure. Compared to Twitter’s noisy café, Facebook was the underground pipes. It’s hard to see how Trump would have become president without it.

“I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win,” Brad Parscale, the digital media director on Trump’s 2016 campaign who then started as his campaign manager in 2020, said in 2017. “Facebook was the method — it was the highway which his car drove on.”

“… large numbers of conservative voters, ability to broadcast all day, multiple times to the same audience, and the numbers were showing in the consumer side that people were spending more and more hours of their day consuming Facebook content,” he said in 2018. “Being able to show a message directly from President Trump talking… talking directly to camera was very important. I could get it right there not filtered by the media, not filtered by anyone. It was his face. It was the person you wanted to hear from talking directly to you.”

A New Yorker headline in March of 2020 referred to “Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut.”

“He arguably has the best fundraising list in Republican politics right now, which means he has the best email lists and text messaging lists, but there’s a half-life on that — because people change emails, change cell phone providers. So it’s important that he keeps filling that pipeline with new contacts, and that’s where Facebook comes in,” Wilson said, noting that polling he’s done suggests that 60 percent of voters log on to Facebook every day.


“In order to continue building the Trump political machine, they need access to more new customers,” he added, “and Facebook is where you get them. There’s no other platform that has the scale and the reach and the targeting capacity.”

“Everyone in this country has free speech, and he has supporters, and Facebook isn’t going to ban them all — that would be wrong,” Amanda Carpenter, a former Ted Cruz aide and the author of Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, told me. “But the question that they need to consider is: Do they want to let this person back in to spread a message that caused an insurrection and give him the power of algorithmic amplification to inject those messages directly to millions of people in a way that can spread dangerously, as we’ve seen?”

Without Facebook — without YouTube, without Twitter — Trump so far as an ex-president has gone on occasion on people’s podcasts. He’s made periodic appearances on Fox News and on One America News and on Newsmax. On Tuesday, he did an interview with DailyWire.com. And he’s relied, more and more of late, on emailed statements, sent from his Save America PAC and from his post-presidential office in a onetime bridal suite above the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago. He’s strained to say they’re “much more elegant than Twitter,” keeping with his decades-long record of calling losses wins, but people simply don’t pay attention to them the way they did even his most ho-hum bleats of tweets. As roundly meddling as Trump’s been — and he’s been as expected and predicted more meddling than any former president in modern American history — he’s also been undeniably muted.

“There is no direct line of communication,” as Burns put it, “with the exception of his email list right now.”

“He is being blocked. He’s been de-platformed,” said Texas A&M rhetoric professor Jen Mercieca, who has told me she thinks Trump has less “rhetorical power” than any president since the dawn of the age of mass media more than a century ago. “Most ex-presidents don’t want to use their rhetorical power. They want to sort of leave the scene. But Trump wants it and can’t get it.”

His frustration is increasingly readily apparent.

As Wednesday’s announcement from Facebook approached, Trump brayed on Monday into the relative void.

“The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” he stated in the morning in another one of his emails from the “45th President of the United States of America.”

“So nice to see RINO Mitt Romney booed off the stage at the Utah Republican State Convention,” he said that afternoon. “They are among the earliest to have figured this guy out, a stone cold loser!”

“Heartwarming to read new polls on big-shot warmonger Liz Cheney of the great state of Wyoming,” he said 17 minutes later. “She is so low…”

And on Tuesday, Trump debuted a new feature on one of his websites, a page online critics quickly mocked as little more than a musty blog, essentially a compilation of his statements that landed in sum like all but an admission that he thinks his messages aren’t hitting and spreading with as much force as he wants. Next to the posts were buttons to share. On Twitter and Facebook.

“I think, based on his desperate attempts to get his tweet-like statements out, he does still need mainstream social media,” Mike Rothschild, a journalist who focuses on the intersection of politics and internet culture and the author of a forthcoming book about the QAnon conspiracy theory, told me. “He needs,” he said, “to be on mainstream social media to have any real platform.”

A Republican strategist texted me a lament. “The ‘Big Lie’ press release was just sad,” he said. “It’s like an old rock band after they lose the lead singer. You’re seeing Journey, but it’s not like you remember.”