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How Facebook and Twitter are punking Trump

The lure must feel irresistible. After two years in social-media exile, former President Donald Trump is now allowed back on Facebook and Instagram, both owned by parent Meta (META). Twitter revoked his suspension last November, shortly after Elon Musk bought the company. Trump can now directly post his rants and ramblings to 20 times the number of followers he can reach on his own social-media platform, Truth Social.

Except he can’t, exactly, because rejoining mainstream social-media services might doom his own social startup. Trump launched Truth Social, which is supposed to be part of a larger Trump media company, in 2021, after Twitter and Facebook both banned him following the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol. The Trump company plans to merge with a “blank-check” outfit called Digital World Acquisition Corp. (DWAC), as a quick way of going public. When that news broke in October 2021, DWAC shares soared from the pro forma baseline of $10 to an intraday high of $175. The highest daily close was $97.25, on March 3, 2022. For a while, it looked as if Trump’s idea for a conservative alternative to Twitter and Facebook was a solid business move.

But there’s a catch: Trump has to stay on Truth Social for it to be a viable business. Otherwise, there’s no lure for the rest of the app’s users, who are mostly Trump followers. Registration documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission spell this out, saying, “If President Trump were to cease to be able to devote substantial time to Truth Social, business would be adversely affected. Failure to realize this vision would adversely affect [the company’s] brand and business prospects.”

Trump has nearly 5 million followers on Truth Social. Before the January 6 riots, he had 88 million followers on Twitter, 35 million on Facebook and 25 million on Instagram. Add them up, and the mainstream sites offer Trump nearly 30 times the reach as Truth Social. Even if you discount that for bots and duplicate followers, Twitter, Facebook and Insta still dwarf Truth Social’s reach.

The Truth social network logo is seen on a smartphone in front of a display of former U.S. President Donald Trump in this picture illustration taken February 21, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
The Truth social network logo is seen on a smartphone in front of a display of former U.S. President Donald Trump in this picture illustration taken February 21, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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Meta executives must have been fully aware that Trump might decline the invitation to return to Facebook and Insta. Musk practically begged Trump to return to Twitter, to no avail, so far. So Meta knew Trump was stuck with his own platform before reinstating his account. In a January 25 interview on Fox Business, Devin Nunes, the touchy former Congressman who’s now CEO of Truth Social, said Trump has no plans to ditch his own network in favor of the bigger competitors.

Nunes did indicate that Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign needs access to Facebook and Instagram to advertise and to promote Trump as a candidate. Targeted social-media ads were effective for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and still important in 2020, even though he lost. Advertising on Truth Social would be kind of pointless, by comparison, since Trump would only be preaching to the choir. Winning requires targeted messages to swing voters unlikely to be part of Trump’s amen chorus on Truth Social.

Trump’s deal with Truth Social requires that he post there first and wait six hours before posting the same content elsewhere. On January 22, Rolling Stone reported that Trump is considering canceling that agreement when it comes up for renewal in June. Trump would still have to post simultaneously on Truth Social and any other platform, but doing that would make the Trump app redundantly and effectively obsolete, given how small it is.

There’s still one scenario where when Truth Social could come in handy, even if it’s not Trump’s primary platform. Facebook has established new “guardrails” that would determine whether to suspend Trump’s account or once again ban it permanently, should Trump use it to spread lies, defame critics or incite violence. If he returned to Facebook and Insta but got banned again, then Truth Social might serve as his fallback. Twitter hasn’t proposed its own guardrails on Trump, and Musk may not want any. But Musk could still face pressure to ban Trump, if he goes rogue and advertisers flee as a result.

This would only matter if Truth Social survives, and that’s looking iffy. The stock has fallen 84% from its 2022 high and some shareholders who bought hoping to cash in on a booming Trump media operation now feel the end is nigh. The merger between Trump’s company and DWAC still hasn’t closed, amid questions from government regulators about whether the merger broke rules governing blank-check companies. There have been other problems that suggest trouble, such as chronically late SEC filings.

Meta is a huge company that has a lot more to worry about than Trump’s account, and maybe the reinstatement offer is a sincere effort to host a former president, no matter how controversial. But it also puts Trump in a ticklish position by pitting his political interests—and his ego—against his business interests. Meta has staked out a winning position, since it can claim credit for unfreezing Trump while still retaining the right to refreeze him if necessary. For Trump, the choice is to stick with an unpopular app he has championed, or rejoin the mainstream he has trashed. Meta may have him right where it wants.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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