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Trump vs Twitter - a politically expedient social media spat with implications for the kind of internet we want

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 29, 2020
Donald Trump has taken exception to having a fact-checked notice put on one of his tweets, resulting in an escalation of war against social media platform providers that could have a long term impact on the shape of the internet.

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It’s inevitably been framed for the home crowd as a defense of freedom of speech and the American way, but the Executive Order (EO) signed by the President of the United States yesterday looks to many as very much like Trump vs Twitter. That said, the wider implications and questions thrown up by this move go far wider than bruised Presidential egos, re-election prospects and getting even with critics. 

Given the President’s daily use of Twitter as a comms channel to his heartland, the trigger point for the current escalation in tensions could have come at any time over the past 3.5 years - although probably very early in the morning, Washington-time - but in the event, it was the inclusion of a fact-checking option on one of Trump’s tweets that tipped the balance. 

Two tweets from the President suggested that California's mail-in ballot program - a particular hot button for Trump at the moment - would result in substantial voter fraud in the November general election. That assertion - not backed up by any evidence - resulted in Twitter adding a caution that the two comments contained “potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots”. It also provided links to further information on the subject of mail-in voting. The tweets themselves were not taken down or blocked. 

Being fact-checked pushed Trump into signing an EO aimed at paving the way for social media platforms in general - although only 4 are specifically named in the order: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and, of course, Twitter - to be held accountable for the way they moderate content. At present Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act basically exempts online platforms from legal liability for material their users post. 

At the signing of the EO, Trump upped the political rhetoric for the cameras, declaring that Twitter had set itself up as an editor by  virtue of its fact-checking and that this was an affront to democracy, not just a politically inconvenient addendum to some dubious claims from the Oval Office:

We're here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history.

If that was supposed to put Twitter on notice, it singularly failed to do so. Trump has gone on to post a couple of tweets referencing the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American who was caught on video with his head being knelt on by a police officer in Minneapolis. Floyd died shortly afterward and one consequence of his death has been civil unrest in the city, including incidents of looting. 

Trump warned in his tweets that such incidents  of civil disobedience would not be tolerated and that he was ready to send in the National Guard to “bring the City under control”  and “get the job done right”, adding that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.

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At 4am Washington-time, Twitter smacked a a notice on the ‘looting/shooting’ tweet, stating that it violates the company’s rules on glorifying violence. But it did not take down the offending tweet, stating that it may be in the public interest for the tweet to remain accessible. As a result, the President’s words can be seen as written by him by clicking on the violation warning text. Twitter also put the same warning on a White House retweet of Trump's comment: 


There wasn't long to wait for the man himself to react once he woke up: 


November is coming

With the US elections looming in November and COVID-19 currently limiting personal appearances and large rallies across the country, social media outreach is going to play a major part in the process of choosing the next occupant of the Oval Office. That is, of course, an all-too-familiar refrain - every major electoral process for the past few years has been accompanied by a flurry of opportunistic PR from commentators asking, ‘Will this be the Twitter/Facebook/Other Social Media Platforms Are Available election?’. 

Up until recently, the safe answer to that was probably ‘no’. But that all changed with the last US election and Brexit in the UK. The resulting scandals around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Russian meddling, yada yada yada changed the discourse around the power of social media and its influence - positive and negative - on democracy. And it raised questions over what the responsibilities of the platform providers should be in relation to the content they channel. 

For its part, Facebook - as widely documented - has made a lot of mea culpa noises and said all the right things about tackling outside interference, but in practice has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to political comments. It’s been open in its assertion that it doesn’t see it as its duty to fact check politicians and their claims, arguing that voters should be exposed to lots of views and come to their own conclusions. 

That’s pretty much the tack that CEO Mark Zuckerberg took this week as he popped up on Fox News to declare:

I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn't be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn't be, especially these platform companies, shouldn't be in the position of doing that.

Now, Zuckerberg was hardly likely to say anything other than take that position on the Trump-supporting Fox News - interesting choice of media outlet there, from Facebook Apologist-in-Chief Nick Clegg perhaps? - and sure enough, it was a party line that won an approving tweet from Trump. 

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey on the other hand will still be very much in the bad books as he declared:

We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes. 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.

The prospect of more public dissent between the CEOs of the two best-known platforms will obviously not concern Trump - indeed, he’s already tweeted about it. It’s quite clear from the Administration side of the fence that there is a large personal political element at play in what has ensued. The EO makes that very obvious at one point: 

Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias. As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician's tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff [one of `Trump’s most ferocious betes noir] was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets.

Liabilities and liars

The decision to center the EO on Section 230 is interesting and problematic. On the one hand, the clause allows tech platforms to adopt their own moderation and policing policies around content without fear of being held liable - and thus open to lawsuits - for that content.  On the other hand, it can be argued that it also allows platform providers to abdicate responsibility for what some constituencies regard as harmful content, such as hate speech or terrorist propaganda, when it's not convenient to shoulder that burden.

This is why, in the absence of workable, consensual regulation on a wider scale, holding social media firms ‘feet to the fire’ on adhering to their own rules and guidelines is essential. On this point, Twitter hasn’t exactly had a stellar record. The firm has chosen to make the decisions it has this week around Trump’s comments, but has not, for example, taken exception to repeated promotion of conspiracy theory allegations about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough - anpther vociferous critic of the President - and his supposed involvement in the death of one of his staff when he was a Republican Congressman. If some tweets are going to be fact checked, then, say critics, all tweets - from all political perspectives - should be. 

And that’s where all this could backfire for both sides - if the EO forces social media platforms into a blanket response of deleting posts and blocking users rather than attempt to manage the costly and likely impossible task of fact checking it all, everything changes and not for the better. 

Even Facebook has found an unaccustomed spine on that front, issuing a statement: 

By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalise companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.

What the President’s EO then really points to is a putative pre-moderated internet, one that by it’s very nature would be basically under state control and not dare to present dissenting views or have people point out when politicians tell lies to suit their own purposes. Such an outcome would make the defending freedom of speech guff about as credible as Trump’s totally unconvincing claim yesterday that he’d like nothing better than to switch off his own Twitter account. 

What happens next? Legal challenges almost certainly - and on that front, since US Communications Decency Act came into law passed in 1996, various courts have upheld the protections offered by Section 230. But the EO and the ensuing arguments will provide another talking point for the Trump campaign in the run-up to the Election and as such make it become one for the Democrats. Expect lots of ‘who’s really defending American freedoms?’ rhetoric to come.

But that’s all a sideshow, fodder for Fox News to fulminate over and for politicos to posture against. When the dust settles, it’s unlikely we’ll be much further along effectively addressing what is a very real issue of responsibilities in a social media age.

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