Social media companies exercising ‘dangerous power’, says Trump

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 29 May 2020

US president Donald Trump has signed an executive order aimed at removing some of the legal protections given to social media platforms.

The executive order comes after microblogging site Twitter, for the first time, labelled two of Trump’s tweets as “potentially misleading”.

On Tuesday, for example, Trump tweeted: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”

Twitter then accompanied Trump’s tweet with the statement: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” which links to a CNN report about the president making unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballots.

Trump’s new executive order now gives regulators the power to pursue legal actions against firms such as Facebook and Twitter for the way they police content on their platforms.

In a statement, Trump says: “…we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey on the Internet. This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic. When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power.

“They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.”

Modern soapbox

Trump says the growth of online platforms in recent years raises important questions about applying the ideals of the First Amendment to modern communications technology.

“Today, many Americans follow the news, stay in touch with friends and family, and share their views on current events through social media and other online platforms. As a result, these platforms function in many ways as a 21st century equivalent of the public square.”

He adds that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see.

“As president, I have made clear my commitment to free and open debate on the Internet. Such debate is just as important online as it is in our universities, our town halls, and our homes. It is essential to sustaining our democracy.”

Trump notes that online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming national discourse.

“Tens of thousands of Americans have reported, among other troubling behaviours, online platforms ‘flagging’ content as inappropriate, even though it does not violate any stated terms of service; making unannounced and unexplained changes to company policies that have the effect of disfavouring certain viewpoints; and deleting content and entire accounts with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse.

“Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias,” Trump says.

The executive order also calls for:

  • The Federal Communications Commission to spell out what type of content blocking will be considered deceptive, pretextual or inconsistent with a service provider's terms and conditions.
  • A review of government advertising on social media sites and whether those platforms impose viewpoint-based restrictions.
  • The re-establishment of the White House “tech bias reporting tool” that lets citizens report unfair treatment by social networks.

In an escalation of the row between Twitter and Trump, the social media platform today labelled one of the president’s tweets as having “glorified violence”, just hours after he signed the executive order threatening to strip the company of protections against liability.

The offending tweet by Trump came in his reaction to the riots in Minneapolis. He used a quote from a former Miami police chief who said: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The Verge reports that Twitter has not chosen to remove the tweet from its platform entirely, because it believes it to be in the public interest. Twitter announced the notice in a tweet thread from its official comms account.

According to the report, the notice means the tweet is hidden from Trump’s timeline, but is accessible if users visit the tweet directly after clicking the “view” button.

Section 38 protections

According to Reuters, Trump wants to “remove or change” a provision of a law known as Section 230 that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users.

In a tweet, the US president went further to slam Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, who was already experiencing a backlash, even though the company said no one employee was responsible for the decision to label the president’s tweets.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has come to the defence of employees, saying in a tweet: “Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me. Please leave our employees out of this. We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make.”

Jon Epstein, partner at law firm Hall Estill, comments: “When the Internet was in its infancy, Congress passed section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in 1996 in which it made the policy decision that the Internet platforms would not be treated as publishers of information that is posted by their users.”

Epstein explains the decision was made in order to encourage the free exchange of ideas because if the platforms risked exposure to liability for what others posted, they would limit the free flow of robust debate.

“During his campaign and since he was elected, president Trump has engaged in a heated conflict with reporters and media platforms who have criticised or questioned him.”

Online adversaries

He says this is not the first time this president has considered issuing an executive order designed to remove the protections that were given to social media platforms by Congress in section 230.

Until today, he has refrained from doing so, Epstein says.

“The issue returned after Twitter fact-checked the president’s recent tweet. This angered him and his supporters because they view certain platforms as adversaries that promote criticisms of the president and his agenda.

Epstein says others view those same platforms as tools that allow the exchanges of information that serve as a watchdog on the government and elected officials.

He points out the current dispute appears to be based on whether the actions of these platforms in addressing posts by the president or others is done in good faith.

“While there may be legitimate reasons to revisit the protections Congress enacted in 1996, should that important issue be debated and decided in Congress or should it be erased by the president during a political beef with his critics?” Epstein says.

“This may be the issue that brings to a head the dispute between the president and the media that he has so often belittled.”

Meanwhile, BBC reports the order is expected to face legal challenges.

It says legal experts say US Congress or the court system must be involved to change the current legal understanding of protections for these platforms.