Opinion

Trump's social media lawsuits are strategic, performative, and doomed

One member of this class action is not like the others

Former President Donald Trump announced himself on Wednesday as the lead plaintiff in class action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as their respective CEOs.

"We're demanding an end to the shadow-banning, a stop to the silencing and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing, and canceling that you know so well," he told reporters at his New Jersey golf course, arguing "there's no better evidence that big tech is out of control than [that] they banned the sitting president of the United States earlier this year." With these lawsuits, then, Trump will stand athwart big tech yelling, Stop! Please let me join you! I very much would like to be part of the extremely cool stuff you're doing here!

If that rallying cry seems nonsensical, well, so is the entire project, if taken at face value. Its real value for Trump is indirect. These don't seem to be lawsuits designed to succeed in court so much as tools of public relations and fundraising. They are strategic, performative, sometimes downright silly, and almost certainly legally doomed.

The Facebook suit is the one I'll reference throughout this article, and it treats us to a lengthy recounting of Trump's Facebook use and its purported value to our country. Trump liked to post about "politics, celebrities, golf, and his business interests, among other topics," the filing informs. That's where his similarity to others in the class action ends.

While his fellow plaintiffs get a few paragraphs each to note their loss of access to online relationships and "thousands of treasured family photos and memories," Trump's far longer section reads much like a campaign press release. It notes his "strategi[c] circumvent[ion of] what he saw as a mainstream media that was biased against him." It touts his Facebook use in office as an "important outlet for ... the U.S. government," a "public forum, serving a public function."

Trump's posts boasted "thousands of replies," we're reminded, and "[n]o one was excluded, regardless of their views." (Whether that's true, I don't know, but it's worth noting that, as president, Trump went to court for the right to block critics on Twitter.) He used social media "to communicate directly with the American people more than any other president had directly communicated with them in the past," the recitation continues. His absence has singlehandedly "ended balanced, direct public discussions between competing political views on national and local issues" — not to mention impeded his "fundraising for the Republican Party" and "laying a foundation for a potential 2024 presidential campaign."

The other members of Trump's class are no doubt happy to be there, but the notion that this suit is about anyone but him is incredible. Winning would benefit him in a way it would not benefit the other members of the class, or indeed anyone else on earth.

But the idea that victory is sincerely anticipated is also incredible. For one thing, Trump filed suit in federal court in Florida, but Facebook's terms of service require adjudication in California.

For another, after all its narrative, the suit doesn't include any comprehensive evidence of the alleged censorship. It musters quite a bit about Facebook's removal of COVID-19-related information the company (with input from Washington) deemed incorrect, but there's no attempt at a broader case that Republican or right-wing views are being censored on a mass scale. Perhaps that data does exist — though a daily accounting of the 10 most popular posts on Facebook is consistently dominated by right-of-center pages — but it's not provided here.

Moreover, the suit's crucial contention is that Facebook's status has risen "beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor" and that it is therefore "constrained by the First Amendment right to free speech in the censorship decisions it makes regarding its users." Though many — most notably Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — may be sympathetic to this reasoning, it is wrong, and it will fail in court like other cases past. Trump (or at least his legal team) knows this, because his Justice Department argued exactly the opposite of this suit's position in the Twitter blocking case.

There's a sense in which these obstacles of venue, evidence, and argument are irrelevant, however, and it's another distinction between Trump and the other members of his class. They, presumably, want to get back on Facebook. He undoubtedly wants that too, but a lawsuit is uniquely useful for Trump.

The focus on big tech is a revealing pivot away from the old Republican concern about big government — to which Trump has no objection — and also a happily endless fight, perpetual fodder for his public outrage. Suing puts his name back in the headlines (like, yes, this one), opens a new line of fundraising (a line he's pursuing already), and occasions yet another list-building website (where you can "sign up for updates or share your story about big tech censorship," two seemingly different options that tellingly run through the same sign-up form).

And call me cynical, but I suspect the class action itself is performance, too: See how he's championing these nobodies? What a man of the people! Put your email address here so President Trump can circumvent the biased mainstream media and directly communicate to you news of his potential 2024 presidential campaign.

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