On Thursday, the US president Donald trump fulfilled his threat to “do something about social media” by signing executive order to that effect.
Trump had threatened to silence social media platforms for what he claimed are “stifling free speech” and silencing conservatives. “This will be a Big Day for Social Media” he tweeted a few hours before he signed the executive order.
The motive behind the order has centered on the events of Tuesday, when Twitter fact-checked him following his tweets calling mail-in voting fraud. Twitter attached a link under the tweet to lead readers to more information about mail-in voting. That didn’t go down well with Trump who considered it an act of censorship and threatened to shut down social media platforms.
Hours before he signed the executive order, Trump said the move was to “defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history.”
He said that social media monopoly has enabled unchecked power to censor all forms of communication.
“A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States. They have had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences,” he said.
The order was based on the communication Decency Act section 230, which exempts social media platforms from liability for contents put out by users. Part of the Act says that social media platforms can only be exempt if they “act in good faith.” Trump signed the executive order on the argument that they have not.
“In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, 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,” the order said.
The order says that social media platforms have been “invoking inconsistent, irrational, and groundless justifications to censor or otherwise punish Americans’ speech here at home.”
The draft order means that watchdogs like the Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could now reinterpret to “act on good faith” and allow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to make room for users to report bias online. According to the order, the National telecommunication and Information Administration will need to file a petition for rulemaking with the FCC in 60 days.
When there is an allegation of anti-conservative bias, the order directs the justice department to consult with state attorneys general. If it established that the “good faith” principle under section 230 has been violated, federal agencies will be banned from advertising on the responsible platform. As part of the order, the FTC will be required to report on complaints of bias collected by the White House and commence legal action against the social media platform as soon as wrongdoing has been established.
Legal experts across the left and right wings said it may be unconstitutional because it risks infringing on the first amendment rights of private companies and it also attempts to circumvent the two other branches of government.
Others believe it’s Trump’s way of getting back to those who disagree with him. Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, who introduced the Decency Act back in 1996, said Trump is trying to steal court power for his own gain.
“Trump is trying to steal for himself the power of the courts and Congress to rewrite decades of settled law. He decides what is legal based on his interest,” he said.
Trump is known for being very critical about the tech industry, and the Tuesday events appear to have offered him an opportunity to escalate it. Social media platforms have been at the center of “bias practice” controversy following allegations by the right wing that the left are being favored and conservative voices are being suppressed.
Facebook had on Tuesday condemned Twitter’s decision to fact-check Trump. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with CNBC that social media platforms shouldn’t be “acting as an arbiter of truth.”
In response, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey said the social media platform has done nothing out of place, and would continue to point out incorrect or disputed information.
“Fact Check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me,” Jack wrote on Thursday. “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes will make.
“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.”
Despite the different view Zuckerberg has about the fact-check, Facebook joined Google in condemning Trump’s executive order. The companies said the decision will hurt the digital economy and the internet at large.
“By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement.
Google’s spokeswoman Riva Sciuto said: “Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences. Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”
However, Twitter appears undeterred by Trump’s move. It said on Thursday that the order “is a reactionary and politicized approach to landmark law.” On Friday, Twitter placed a notice of violation of rule on Trump’s tweet, but allowed the tweet because it was made in public interest.
Trump tweeted that he is sending the national guard to Minnesota where there is rioting over the killing of an African-American man, George Floyd. Part of the tweet reads: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter policy prohibits promotion of violence of any form.
The controversy that started with a tweet has escalated the existing tension between the tech industry and the White House. But Donald Trump acknowledged it will not be easy because he knows; “it’s going to be challenged in court.”