Trump vs. Twitter: Making sense of the fact-check fight
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President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday targeting the rights that social media companies have to alter or remove content posted to their platforms. The order came amid an ongoing dispute between the president and Twitter stemming from the company’s decision to append a fact check to two of his tweets falsely connecting mail-in voting with election fraud.
Trump and his allies have accused the social media giant of violating free speech by fact-checking his post. “We cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey on the internet,” the executive order reads. Hours after it was signed, Twitter added a disclaimer to a tweet from the president that was interpreted as advocating mass violence against protesters in Minneapolis.
The main focus of the executive order concerns an archaic but critical portion of the Communications Decency Act. The provision, known as Section 230, protects social media companies and websites from being sued for posts by their users. It also allows them to edit, delete or modify content on their platforms. Trump’s order aims to remove those liability protections if a company’s content decisions are motivated by bad faith, such as political bias.
Twitter and other social media platforms have faced persistent calls over the past three years to regulate Trump’s online posts, which critics say include inflammatory and false statements that would cause a typical user to be suspended or banned. At the same time, Republicans have for years railed against major tech companies over what they argue is unfair bias against conservative political views.
Why there’s debate
Section 230 is considered by tech and legal experts to be one of the most important regulations of the digital revolution. Without protection from lawsuits over user-made content, companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter would be afraid to remove objectionable material and would never have been able to grow into the market behemoths they are today, they argue. Revoking those protections could fundamentally alter the way the internet works and may even lead to more censorship if companies change policies to protect themselves from being sued.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones who have issues with Section 230. Some liberals claim it’s a major reason for rampant misinformation online. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called for it to be revoked in an interview in January.
That said, there are serious questions about whether Trump’s order will hold up under legal scrutiny. Section 230 was approved by Congress in 1996 and likely can only be altered by it. Beyond that, Trump’s attempt to regulate social media companies’ editorial practices may violate their First Amendment rights, legal experts say. “Donald Trump’s order is plainly illegal,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who co-wrote the Communications Decency Act.
Debates over the legal standing of the order are beside the point, some political analysts argue. The main purpose of the move may be more about sending a political signal than changing legislation. The mere threat of legal repercussions may make social media companies hesitant to cross the president by moderating even provably false statements in the lead-up to the election. Pitting himself against Twitter also allows Trump to push the “us vs. them” narrative that has been a successful rallying cry among his conservative base in the past.
Several tech companies are reportedly already gearing up to challenge Trump's order in court. Meanwhile, Republicans in both houses of Congress have announced they are working on legislation to solidify elements of the order into law.
Trump’s order could be the first step in a major reworking of internet speech
“It’s a hugely ambitious proposal, arguably the biggest single attempt to regulate internet platforms, and for better or worse, it signals the beginning of an all-out war between Trump and any platform that tries to fact-check him.” — Russell Brandom, Verge
Trump has no power to change federal law
“The insanely overreaching order … wasn’t written with an eye toward conforming to federal law or constitutional protections of speech and commerce. And make no mistake: the draft order, when it manages to be coherent, is insanely unconstitutional.” — Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason
Trump’s order will hold back much-needed reforms for Big Tech companies
“This order will do more to solidify power by big tech than anything. Pushing for things that will not happen with dopey proclamations like this will stifle real reform and good legislation to rein in big tech.” — Recode co-founder Kara Swisher
Removing legal protections will lead to more censorship, not less
“Stripping Twitter and other social media of liability protections is likely to make them more inclined to censor speech, not permit it. Either these companies will have to pass a ‘neutrality’ test imposed by the government, or they’ll simply take down as much controversial content as possible.” — David Harsanyi, National Review
Section 230 helps protect the public from disturbing content
“I think if you asked the vast majority of Americans, including politicians, they would say we want platforms to take down some speech that is legal because the First Amendment protects a lot of speech that is really offensive or really obnoxious or really harmful. You know, it can protect things like sharing the terrible video of the Christchurch massacre.” — Internet policy expert Daphne Keller to NPR
Twitter is waging a losing battle trying to moderate Trump
“The point here is that Twitter, for a lot of reasons — some of which are its fault and some of which aren’t — has no chance in a fight over facts and truth with Trump.” — Chris Cillizza, CNN
Fighting with Big Tech is a political win for Trump
“President Trump has finally goaded Twitter into starting the fight that Trump has been itching to have. Unfortunately for the social media giant, it’s a fight Twitter cannot win anymore — and one that Trump and his allies do not want to end.” — Jon Healy, Los Angeles Times
Tech company employees shouldn’t have the right to decide what’s true and false
“For one, it’s hard to see why anyone, regardless of his or her political persuasion, ought to trust Twitter employees to serve as some sort of unbiased referee and arbiter of the ‘truth.’” — Brad Polumbo, Washington Examiner
The order is mostly a political message to Trump’s base
“The executive order might do markedly little, but it symbolizes a great deal about the president and his understanding of his voters. In short, Trump perceives that his voters care a great deal about purported censorship aimed at conservatives on social media platforms, and wants to signal his resolve to do something about it.” — Jane Coaston, Vox
Twitter has a constitutional right to regulate content on its platform
“The First Amendment’s protection of speech is not a promise that private entities will permit the use of their property to host or promote anyone’s speech. It is a guarantee that the government may not compel speech, which actually provides a right to editorial discretion to online platforms.” — Ben Sperry, The Hill
The order will make social media companies hesitant to fact-check Trump in the future
“Trump wants to be able to lie on Twitter and other platforms with total impunity, free of any fact-checking. Trump doesn’t want Twitter to inform people of options for voting safely amid a pandemic, in hopes that fear of sickness and death will discourage voting and keep turnout low to his benefit.” — Greg Sargent, Washington Post
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