Once again social media platforms are getting dragged onto center stage in the 2020 election, and if President Trump had his way, he'd like to unleash the full wrath of the federal government's regulatory powers on them to keep them doing his bidding.
Following through on his tweeted threats on Wednesday, Trump is said to be issuing an executive order Thursday — likely just a symbolic one, but nonetheless threatening as is his style — directing the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and other executive branch agencies to see what they can do to punish social media companies, but especially Twitter. Also, he would like to remove the liability protections that social media platforms enjoy, which protect them from legal action for the content posted by users — though this is not something he can likely do alone without an act of Congress.
This is all part of the snit the president has been in since Tuesday, when Twitter took the unprecedented step of adding a fact-check link to one of his tweets about mail-in ballots.
In response to the president's threats, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said late Wednesday, "We'll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally." He added, in response to comments by rival Mark Zuckerberg, "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."
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. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.— jack (@jack) May 28, 2020
Zuckerberg, clearly again trying to curry favor with the president as he did at a secretive dinner he shared at the White House last fall, rushed onto Fox News late Wednesday to try to distance Facebook's policies from Twitter. Speaking to Dana Perino, on Fox's The Daily Briefing, Zuckerberg reiterated his thoughts on political speech, saying, "I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online, and neither should other private companies." Last fall, Facebook made the controversial decision that it would not deploy its fact-checking apparatus when it comes to political advertising, though it has said — like Twitter — that it would police misinformation with regard to voting and election information.
As CNN reports, the public war of words between Zuckerberg and Dorsey points to how high they likely believe the stakes are here. And while Trump's draft order, expected to be signed later today, might be toothless in the end, it nonetheless is part of an ongoing war that conservatives have been waging claiming unfair treatment on social media — where racist views, hate speech, and lies about elections aren't typically permitted.
Facebook had a post from President Trump on its platform that was identical to the one that appear on Twitter regarding mail-in ballots, and Trump's baseless claims about how they lead to fraud and rigged elections. But Facebook applied no fact-checking label to it. Still, Facebook has said it would police speech that misled people about the voting process, so it seems like they are once again giving Trump special treatment because they know he is a big baby. "We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process," Facebook said in a statement Tuesday, "which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote."
Dorsey has held firm that Trump's statement does amount to voter misinformation — five states currently conduct their elections entirely by mail, for instance (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah) and there has been no evidence there of widespread voter fraud, despite Trump's claims to the contrary.
As the New York Times reports, the order is likely to refer to "selective censoring" by the platforms targeting conservatives and "would allow the Commerce Department to try to refocus how broadly Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act] is applied." Section 230 is what has been cited in many court challenges over controversial content on social platforms the companies' liability for that content — and Attorney General William Barr has previously suggested he wants it revised now that tech companies control so much of the public discourse.
The other likely empty aspect of Trump's order, as KTVU reports, is that it is expected to say something about withholding federal advertising dollars from social media platforms that "violate free speech principles," and Trump campaign advisor Brad Parscale echoed this on Wednesday saying the campaign had pulled all of its ads from Twitter due to its "clear political bias" — the problem being that Twitter already banned all political advertising last fall, so this is just another lie.
Update: The order has been signed, but a copy of it was not shared with reporters. As the New York Times reports, most legal experts agree that it is toothless political theater, and won't withstand court challenges, but it's nonetheless another salvo for conservatives to tout against liberal tech companies in an election year.
"We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history," Trump said in the Oval Office, regarding social media's power. "They’ve had unchecked power to censure, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences... We cannot allow that to happen, especially when they go about doing what they’re doing."
Trump and Barr are trying to argue that by posting the fact-checking link on Trump's tweet, the company was acting as a "publisher" and not a platform, and making an editorial decision about a user's post. These arguments haven't passed muster in the past, but we'll see how far Barr wants to take it.
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