Two days after Twitter inserted fact checks into US President Donald Trump’s tweets, Trump hit back against social media platforms with an executive order on “preventing online censorship” and skewering Twitter for “political bias”.
Trump’s actions seek to blunt Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act which generally protects internet companies from legal liability for user comments.
Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe called the Trump order a “big nothingburger”.
Trump’s offensive has come on the back of the feeblest of fact checks by Twitter which took the form of a hyperlink, in baby blue, that tagged onto exactly two of Trump’s tweets and said: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots”.
“Nothing the president or agencies like the FCC and FTC can legally do could successfully censor such private Internet comment, so the executive order (EO) that Trump has unfurled is a big nothingburger in terms of responding to what Twitter did to provoke Trump’s outrage”, Tribe tweeted.
The executive order, which runs into more than 2,300 words, is centered around a single issue: That the digital public square should not “restrict” free speech. Trump, who leans on Twitter as his political megaphone, has long been critical of the world’s most famous online platforms to emerge out of Silicon Valley.
“Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike”, reads an excerpt from the order.
The Federal Communications Commission, in a statement, said it would assess its impact of the order and stressed that the First Amendment and Section 230 “remain the law of the land and control here.”
Speaking ahead of the signing, Trump tore into social media firms for “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.”
“There is no precedent in American history for so small a number of corporations to control so large a sphere of human interaction.”
“It is the policy of the United States that large online platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, as the critical means of promoting the free flow of speech and ideas today, should not restrict protected speech,” says the order.
“The Supreme Court has noted that social media sites, as the modern public square, “can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard.”
Predictably, people on all sides of the debate are digging in. “Social media has been allowed to operate unchecked for years while protected by federal law”, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted. “Silicon Valley giants now act as the arbiters of truth, censoring or labelling posts they disagree with, but they cannot be trusted to be honest and fair.”
Twitter and its CEO are no strangers to controversy. While Twitter is tagging Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots, it hasn’t touched his tweets repeating a debunked conspiracy theory that a TV news anchor murdered an aide years ago.
On a trip to India in late 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posed for a picture which had a placard reading “Smash Brahminical patriarchy.” “I’m very sorry for this”, the company’s legal officer said later.
Earlier this week, Dorsey wrote on Twitter, “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally.”
“This does not make us an arbiter of truth,” he clarified. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.”
Twitter has banned all political ads since last November. Twitter and Facebook have both geared up to combat misinformation around the November 2020 US elections and are taking action against misleading political messages, a move they have long resisted.