No other politician has ever spent and raised money on Facebook and Instagram like Donald Trump.
The former president and his affiliated political operations have given the parent company, now known as Meta, more than $159 million to purchase over 1.3 million distinct ads on the social networks since May of 2018, when Meta began keeping public records.
But when Trump stood at his Mar-a-Lago resort to announce another run for president last November, the advertising, fundraising and political list building - which had continued through a workaround even after Trump was officially booted from the platforms in 2021 - nearly ground to a halt. For the first time in months, even Save America, his political action committee, all but stopped pushing new polls, pitches and products to potential supporters. As a candidate for president, Trump could not make direct appeals.
Meta’s decision Wednesday to allow Trump back onto the networks clears the way to effectively reopen the financial partnership that proved crucial to Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, allowing him to mine the American public for people who may be willing to give to him money and buy his merchandise. Most of the ads Trump and his groups post on Facebook include links to pages where voters can donate or hand over their contact information.
Trump’s inner circle is expected to move quickly to capitalize on the new opportunity, and they have been reviewing a return to Twitter as well, where the new owner, Elon Musk, has ended a suspension of Trump’s account and lifted a ban on political advertising that was in place during the 2020 campaign.
“It’s a matter of when, not if. The fundraising opportunity is golden,” said Jason Miller, a longtime adviser to Trump, who described Facebook as “rocket fuel” for Trump’s fundraising program. “It’s something that will be very much needed for 2024.”
The decision, which critics panned as reckless and dangerous due to Trump’s continued posture as an aggrieved ex-president devoted to re-litigating old battles with false claims in his public comments, comes at a key moment in the early stages of the 2024 primary. Trump is the only declared Republican candidate, but well-known rivals are exploring runs, all as Trump has struggled to reignite the support he once enjoyed in the party.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Trump raised $378 million from donors who gave less than $200 in the 2020 election cycle, about 49 percent of his money. While it is not clear how much of that came from Instagram and Facebook, the platforms are generally seen as a primary conduit for soliciting smaller donors.
Trump already has 34 million followers on his Facebook page - seven times the size of his following on the social network he partially owns, Truth Social. Republican political consultants consider Facebook, which is larger and skews older and more conservative than other platforms, as one of the best ways to reach donors. According to the Center for Campaign Innovation, a conservative nonprofit and research group, 46 percent of GOP donors use Facebook daily.
“Generally speaking Facebook and other social platforms are really good at fundraising and acquisition campaigns and pretty poor at persuasion and mobilization campaigns,” said Mark Jablonowski, a Democratic digital strategist at DSPolitical. “That is what is really important about Facebook allowing Trump back on the platform. He is going to be able to support his campaign, which is currently not doing so well so this is a big benefit to their campaign.”
Digital fundraising has dropped for Trump’s team in recent months, according to people familiar with the matter, after spiking during the raid of Mar-a-Lago last summer and the days around his campaign launch. Facebook’s prior interpretation of its suspension on Trump played a role in fundraising in recent weeks.
Previously, Trump’s political operation was allowed to advertise on the platform as long as it did not use his “voice” in its ads, according to a company spokesman. But the suspension prevented him from using his eponymous accounts on Facebook and Instagram or directly appealing to voters or donors.
Meta blocked Trump from posting on the platform following his praise and encouragement of rioters who stormed the Capitol in an attack that left several dead and many more injured. The company then made the suspension for two years and said it would reassess whether it was safe enough to restore his account when that period was over.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of public affairs, wrote in a blog post Wednesday that the company had determined that “the serious risk to public safety that existed in January 2021 has sufficiently receded,” allowing Trump to once again post in his own voice on the platform. He said new “guardrails” would be in place to deter and punish him if Trump “posts further violating content.”
“We believe it is both necessary and possible to draw a line between content that is harmful and should be removed, and content that, however distasteful or inaccurate, is part of the rough and tumble of life in a free society,” Clegg wrote.
The move by Meta attracted some vocal criticism, particularly from Democrats who said Trump’s continued spreading of false information and threats makes welcoming him back into the platforms a dangerous proposition under any circumstances. “Your decision will lead to more harm aimed at us & our families,” tweeted Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), who faced armed protesters in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Trump himself has never been as interested in Facebook as he has been in Twitter, even though Facebook was far more central to the funding of his political operations, according to people familiar with his political operation who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. In the past, aides would often just repost his messages on Twitter to Facebook, these people said. Facebook was viewed as more of a “money making vehicle” than Twitter was, and advisers were frustrated that his suspension would make it harder to raise money, two former advisers said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a possible 2024 presidential contender who has gained favor among major donors and has taken steps to boost his grass-roots fundraising, has spent about $15,000 for ads on the platform in the last seven days. That’s compared to about $3,000 spent by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and no money by former vice president Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, all eyeing presidential bids. DeSantis’s most recent ads ask users to take a survey or sign a petition, handing over contact information that’s valuable to a prospective campaign.
The long-term implications of Wednesday’s decision on Trump’s political standing versus his rivals race are not clear. Political consultants say Facebook has become, in recent years, a less potent tool for political targeting than it once was, after changes to the functionality on the site and new privacy restrictions. “The playbook from 2016 and, to an extent, also 2020 no longer applies,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist.
Among the categories that can no longer be used to target ads are political beliefs and social issues. Trump’s 2016 campaign used such categories prolifically to target narrow segments of the electorate with highly specific messaging. Apple’s privacy changes, also introduced last year, further curtailed advertising opportunities not just on Facebook, Wilson said, but across the advertising industry.
“In 2016, I called it the 500-pound gorilla that did the work. By 2020, it was a fraction. In 2016, Facebook was the biggest player in town. Now, social media platforms are a dime a dozen,” said Brad Parscale, a digital strategist who was integral to Trump’s 2016 Facebook strategy and served as a campaign manager in the 2020 campaign.
Both Parscale and Gary Coby, longtime digital gurus for Trump, are not expected to play a large role in 2024, people familiar with the matter said.
One challenge for Trump will be balancing his commitment to Truth Social with his need to broaden his reach - and whether the messaging actually helps him, if he gets involved personally in crafting it. One person who has worked with Trump compared Trump’s posts on the social network to President Biden’s decision to campaign “in the basement” during the 2020 campaign - a derisive reference to Biden’s home-based operation during the start of the pandemic that limited his exposure and opportunities for missteps. Some Republicans see benefits to him staying on Truth Social. “It keeps him from making mistakes that are more noticed,” this person said.
But most of his orbit said his need for more attention would outweigh those concerns.
“Being on other platforms is a step in the right direction,” said another longtime adviser.
During the 2020 campaign, the liberal group Priorities USA kept data on the apparent intent of Trump Facebook advertising, which shifted more toward voter mobilization as the election approached. For the entire political cycle, from the beginning of 2019 to Election Day, Priorities found that 31 percent of the Trump Facebook spending was intended to persuade or mobilize voters, compared to 31 percent which was focused on list building and 39 percent that was for fundraising.
Nick Ahamed, the deputy executive director of Priorities USA, said a lot of Trump’s list building work in 2020 was focusing on elevating niche issues, like building a border wall, to mobilize voters who were already predisposed to Trump’s message.
“A lot of his path to victory was expanding his base and it wasn’t persuading someone who wasn’t going to buy a MAGA hat,” Ahamed said, citing Trump’s use of ads asking for people to sign petitions. “We have not seen that as much with other candidates.”
In battleground states, the Trump operation spent 54 percent of its Facebook outlays on persuasion and mobilization. The Trump campaign also made a habit of targeting Facebook ads to regions of the country where he planned large rallies to drum up support.
After the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol, Google banned Trump’s YouTube page for an indefinite period of time, a policy that still prevents Trump’s campaign from uploading YouTube ads on the platform. There has been no new review of that suspension announced. Google did allow Save America to buy search and display advertising on its platform, and the new Trump campaign is allowed to do the same.
A Google spokesman, Michael Aciman, said all the advertising must adhere to the company’s ad policies, including disclosure rules for political advertisers. Those policies include restrictions on “content that threatens or advocates for physical or mental harm.”
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, said Facebook’s decision to lift its suspension would allow the Trump effort broader reach.
“Getting back on this platform allows us access to that universe once again,” Cheung said. “We are getting closer to the full spectrum of building out the operation and dominating at every level, which we have already been doing based on poll numbers.”
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Naomi Nix contributed to this report.