Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden vs. Twitter vs. Facebook
After Twitter annotated his comments about mail-in voting and fraud, President Donald Trump responded yesterday with an “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.” As with many official announcements, the headline is misleading: The order is in fact about creating, not preventing, online censorship. It reads in part:
Online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse. Tens of thousands of Americans have reported, among other troubling behaviors, 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 disfavoring certain viewpoints; and deleting content and entire accounts with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse.
We’ll get to some technical details in a moment. But the first thing to note is that this can all be true and still be perfectly legal. That’s a feature, not a bug, of online discourse.
When it comes to the immediate cause of action, Twitter didn’t delete or ban the president’s message but instead flagged it with a fact-check message. Twitter had announced earlier in the month it would label tweets it thought were misleading or wrong about the novel coronavirus and other topics. Labeling the president’s tweet in this way was clearly a middle-finger gesture to the president, less because of the specific content in a given tweet and more because of who the author is and the overtly political nature of the speech. (Even in private contexts, political speech has always been the most-protected sort of expression.)
Today, the service went a step further with a presidential tweet about the violence and looting that broke out Minneapolis during a demonstration against the police killing of George Floyd. “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” wrote Trump. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Twitter determined that that message violates its rules “about glorifying violence,” and so it asks users to click through if they want to see the tweet. Again, that’s not censorship in any meaningful sense of the term, but it’s a huge F.U. to the president.
Trump’s executive order is part of an ongoing battle he’s waging against Section 230 of the Communciations Decency Act (CDA), described by Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown as a “1990s statute stipulating that online platforms and publishers are not to be treated as the speaker of user-generated content (i.e., if I defame someone on Facebook, Facebook isn’t on the hook for defamation).” Sometimes called “the 26 words that created the internet,” Section 230 is widely credited as the basis for much of what happens online. Without the law, the
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