When Facebook and Twitter barred Donald Trump from their platforms after the Capitol riot in January, he lost direct access to his most powerful megaphones. On Friday, Facebook said the former president would not be allowed back on its service until at least January 2023, citing a risk to public safety.
Since his ban and President Joe Biden’s inauguration, he has posted statements online far less often. But some of his statements have traveled just as far and wide on social networks.
The New York Times examined Trump’s nearly 1,600 social media posts from Sept. 1 to Jan. 8, the day Trump was banned from the platforms. We then tracked the social media engagement with the dozens of written statements he made on his personal website, campaign fundraising site and in email blasts from Jan. 9 until May 5, which was the day that the Facebook Oversight Board, which reviews some content decisions by the company, said that the company acted appropriately in kicking him off the service.
Before the ban, the social media post with the median engagement generated 272,000 likes and shares. After the ban, that dropped to 36,000 likes and shares. Yet 11 of his 89 statements after the ban attracted as many likes or shares as the median post before the ban, if not more.
How does that happen?
Trump had long been his own best promoter on social media. The vast majority of people on Twitter and Facebook interacted directly with Trump’s posts, either liking or sharing them, the Times analysis found.
But after the ban, other popular social media accounts often picked up his messages and posted them themselves. (Last week, Trump shut down his blog, one of the places he made statements.)
On Oct. 8, Trump tweeted that then-Democratic presidential candidate Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, lied “constantly.” The post was liked and shared 501,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.
On March 21, Trump published a statement on his website saying that his administration had handed over “the most secure border in history.” He went on to criticize the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis. “Our Country is being destroyed!” Trump said. The statement was liked and shared more than 661,000 times.
The Global Disinformation Index, a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies disinformation, examined the political leanings of the top accounts sharing Trump’s statements online after he was barred from Facebook and Twitter. The group classified hundreds of accounts as either left- or right-leaning, or a mix of the two, relying on standards that it established through its work on disinformation risk ratings for news sites and other online media.
One thing that became immediately clear: Trump’s most ardent supporters continue to spread his message — doing the work that he had been unable to do himself.
The top sharers of the March post included the right-wing publication Breitbart News (159,500 likes and shares), a Facebook page called “President Donald Trump Fan Club” (48,200 likes), Fox News (42,000 likes), and Jenna Ellis (36,700 likes), a lawyer who made regular television appearances as Trump’s proxy to trumpet his debunked claims of a rigged election.
But when Trump criticizes conservatives, his remarks sometimes get picked up by both the left and right.
On Feb. 16, for instance, Trump derided Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, because of McConnell’s unwillingness to back Trump’s attempts to undermine the 2020 election.
The top sharers on the right, according to the Global Disinformation Index analysis, included “Fox & Friends,” the cable news show, and the right-leaning publication Washington Examiner. On the left, the top sharers included the popular Facebook page Stand With Mueller and CNN journalist Jim Acosta.
Many on the right shared the post while agreeing with it, while partisan pages on the left made fun of the intraparty fight. In total, the statement was shared and liked more than 345,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.
One topic from Trump that has not spread far: claims of widespread election fraud.
The Times analysis looked at the 10 most popular posts with election misinformation — judged by likes and shares — from Trump before the social media bans, and compared them with his 10 most popular written statements containing election misinformation after the ban. All the posts included falsehoods about the election — that the process had been “rigged,” for instance, or that there had been extensive voter fraud.
Before the ban, Trump’s posts garnered 22.1 million likes and shares; after the ban, his posts earned 1.3 million likes and shares across Twitter and Facebook.
Disinformation researchers say the difference points to the enormous power the social media companies have in curbing political misinformation, if they choose to wield it. Facebook and Twitter curb the spread of false statements about the November election, though Twitter has loosened its enforcement since March to dedicate more resources to fact-checking in other parts of the world.
“As the Trump case shows, deplatforming doesn’t ‘solve’ disinformation, but it does disrupt harmful networks and blunt the influence of harmful individuals,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation.
Trump’s statements that got the most engagement after his ban included topics like his commentary on the culture wars (as when he urged his followers to boycott baseball), praise for particular individuals (like for radio host Rush Limbaugh, who recently died) and attacks on Biden’s policies on issues like the border crisis and taxes.
Now that Trump has lost both the Oval Office and his Twitter account, he has become a kind of digital leader-in-exile, Brooking said.
Trump’s supporters can refer to his statements to buttress their arguments, Brooking said, “but he’s not directly driving the agenda in the way he once was.”
This data includes statements made by Trump between Sept. 1 and May 5. Statements include social media posts from Trump’s accounts and other news releases in his own words, but they do not include social media posts of article headlines or posts reshared from other accounts. To find posts on Facebook and Instagram quoting these statements, we used CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool. We searched for posts that contained exact quotes of the first eight words or complete sentences from each statement in the post — either in text or in images.
To measure how much Trump’s words were engaged with, we selected the posts on Facebook and Instagram with the most likes and shares for each Trump statement, up to 100 for each platform (in most cases, there were fewer than 100 such posts). On Twitter, we selected all posts that had at least 10 retweets. We then added up the total likes and shares received by these posts to determine a proxy for the total amount of interaction for each Trump statement. Trump’s own posts are included in these tallies.
The Global Disinformation Index classified 880 social media accounts sharing Trump’s words after his ban on Jan. 8 as either left- or right-leaning, or a mix of the two, using standards that it established through its work on disinformation risk ratings for news sites and other online media. The index was able to classify the social media accounts that corresponded to 97% of all interaction data with Trump’s statements post-ban. The remaining 3% all had a small number of interactions.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.