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WASHINGTON — The Trump White House has been embroiled in a vigorous internal debate over whether to issue an executive order aimed at punishing social media companies for perceived political bias, with opposition to the order coming from some of the most conservative parts of the administration.
White House sources tell Yahoo News that the office of Vice President Mike Pence, National Economic Council Chairman Larry Kudlow and others are making the argument that it will set a bad precedent to signal that the federal government can go after private companies and seek to penalize them for purely political reasons.
Even though the draft of the order that leaked to the public on Thursday would be limited in its impact, the signal it would send is the most significant thing, according to its opponents. The push comes as the coronavirus death toll in the United States has surpassed 100,000.
“There is pushback from a lot of people” inside the White House, an administration official told Yahoo News, saying there is “a lot of frustration” among advisers who are often some of the president’s most loyal backers.
The push for the order has come primarily from White House counsel Pat Cipollone, two White House sources said. One source said that Dan Scavino, White House director of social media, is also supportive. Cipollone and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump signed the executive order late Thursday afternoon in the Oval Office, saying, “We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers.” When asked by a reporter why he hasn’t deleted his Twitter account, Trump replied, “If you weren’t fake, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
The concern from opponents of the executive order is that Trump’s anger over being fact-checked by Twitter for the first time this week might have led him to make public statements promising retribution that are hard to walk back.
Concerns from conservatives about Trump’s threatened order have also been voiced publicly outside the White House. “The freedom of the press to do its job, the freedom of companies to make their own statements (and policies) and the freedom of Americans to speak their mind are all protected rights for everyone,” wrote Ashley Pratte, a conservative political consultant who is on the board of Republican Women for Progress. “Trump’s dangerous crusade to use the government to limit or even censor free speech should be called out for what it is: tyrannical.”
A similar executive order was shelved last summer after officials from the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission expressed concerns that it would create a government “speech police.”
The latest order would start the process of potentially removing protections that tech giants have under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says they are not liable for the content posted to their platforms. Eliminating that protection would potentially open them up to lawsuits.
There is skepticism about how effective the proposed changes would be without an act of Congress, which is unlikely to come this year as the legislative body deals with the pandemic and as Democrats control the House.
The executive order comes after Twitter added fact-check language to two of Trump’s posts earlier this week that claimed mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud, though there is no evidence this is true.
“Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” read a message from Twitter below the tweets, linking to a fact-check page populated by links and summaries of news articles debunking the assertion. In a statement, Twitter said Trump’s vote-by-mail tweets “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”
“We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted late Wednesday. “This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’ Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took another stance, telling Fox News his platform has “a different policy, I think, than Twitter on this. I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”
Last year, Facebook said it wouldn’t remove an ad from the Trump campaign that contained false information about former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. The previous month, Zuckerberg and Trump had a surprise meeting at the White House, which the president referred to as “nice.”
Facebook announced a change in policy five days later: It would not fact-check or remove content by politicians even if the posts violated the company’s rules.
Twitter has previously flagged tweets conveying misinformation about the coronavirus, but it has never before put warnings on tweets for any other reason. As numerous officials push for increased vote-by-mail ahead of November’s election due to fears that polling places could be dangerous during the pandemic, Trump has insisted the results would be illegitimate, despite the fact that many states already use the method.
However, the company refused to remove posts in which the president suggested an investigation of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s role in the death of a young woman who died in his office in 2001. Lori Klausutis’s death was ruled an accident, and there is no evidence implicating Scarborough, who was a Florida congressman at the time.
Her husband, Timothy Klausutis, wrote to Dorsey protesting Trump’s tweets, saying the president had “perverted” the memory of his late wife for political gain. Twitter said it was “deeply sorry” but that it would not remove the posts, and it has not posted a fact check or disclaimer in reply.
The executive order is the latest targeting of Big Tech by Trump. Last year, his Justice Department opened a broad antitrust investigation into the companies and threatened to expand the investigation “to any harms caused by online platforms that partially or completely fall outside the antitrust laws.”
The initial investigation followed complaints by Trump against Dorsey that his @realDonaldTrump account had been losing Twitter followers.
In March, Politico reported that Attorney General William Barr, widely viewed as a staunch Trump loyalist, was taking personal direction of the antitrust probes of social media companies.
Alexander Nazaryan contributed reporting to this story.
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