WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday targeting social media companies after he was fact-checked by Twitter for the first time. The order targets legal protections social media giants like Twitter have from liability for user content on their platforms.
The conflict between the president and his preferred means of communication broke out on Tuesday after Trump tweeted that he believed mail-in ballots in California wouldn't "be anything less than substantially fraudulent." President Trump maintained the ballots could be stolen, forged, or illegally printed and filled out.
These unsubstantiated claims on Trump's behalf prompted Twitter to mark the tweets as "potentially misleading.” A hyperlink urging users to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots" was also added to the tweets.
Twitter’s decision to fact-check the president is unprecedented. It’s likely the company knew the administration would have a reaction.
Attorney General William Barr said he’s pairing the executive order with possible new federal and state legislation, which will certainly be challenged in the courts or Congress, potentially leading to what would likely be a steep, uphill battle.
Specifically, the president said he wants to bring changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech companies from certain user lawsuits. Trump's order would allow regulators to claim social media tech companies are censoring the users’ free speech.
Critics maintain the president is using this order as a distraction from criticisms over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as an attempt to rally conservative allies, who have long felt that social media agencies lean left.
The president also alleges social media has anti-conservative bias with “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi shrugged off the president’s actions and said she likes Twitter’s fact-check, but added that Twitter “seems to be very selective,” seemingly aligning with the president’s opinion. At a Thursday press conference, Pelosi accused social media companies of just trying to make money by avoiding taxes and regulations.
“Some have made money off of it and some have made political capital off of their misrepresentations,” Pelosi said. “But what the president is doing is silly; it’s silly. But let’s say this, it’s a distraction. I opened this meeting to talk about testing and how it’s going to save lives, open our economy, send our kids back to school, save lives, and the rest. We’re talking about Twitter. So, let’s get back to saving lives, OK?”
California Democrat Eric Swalwell noted that the president signed the order almost immediately following Twitter’s action and said he wished the president would make decisions related to the coronavirus as quickly and expediently.
Although Twitter has long been the president’s primary social media platform and most direct means of delivering his message, he told reporters he would consider getting rid of Twitter altogether if he could.
“If it were legal, if it were able to be legally shut down, I’d do it,” President Trump said. “I think I would be hurting it very badly if we weren’t using it anymore, I mean we have other sites we can use, I guess or would have to develop other sites. And I’m not just talking about Twitter; look at Facebook, look at the tribunal they set up on Facebook.”
Facebook issued a response, breaking with Twitter with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying he doesn’t believe social media networks should be the arbiters of truth.
Republican Kevin McCarthy said there could even be a problem with the person in charge of Twitter’s fact-checking, saying that person is likely politically biased.
Yet some members of both parties seem to have some a problem with Section 230, although for different reasons. Republicans accuse platforms like Twitter of bias, while Democrats, like Vice President Joe Biden, say there’s not enough being done to halt the spread of misinformation.
In an unusual election year, during which the coronavirus pandemic has halted almost all in-person rallying and canvassing, candidates of both parties are depending on social media to relay their platforms. This suggests this is an issue that's unlikely to go away any time soon.
The situation between the president and the social media platform took another turn Friday when Twitter took the decision to hide one of Trump's tweets regarding the unrest in Minneapolis over the police killing of an unarmed black man, saying the tweet violated rules about "glorifying violence."
Twitter also responded to the president’s executive order with the following statement:
"This EO is a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threatens the future of online speech and Internet freedoms."