Twitter, Trump & Targeting

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Twitter Inc. and President Donald Trump are generating headlines this week over a dispute tied to the social networks’ attempts to moderate what users post.

Twitter hid a tweet from US President Donald Trump this morning and accused him of breaking its rules by “glorifying violence” after he tweeted that looters at protests in Minneapolis could be shot. Twitter’s decision to step in, at a time of racially charged civil unrest in cities across the United States, escalates a feud between Mr. Trump and tech companies.

Earlier in the week, a post by US President Donald Trump was also given a fact-check label by Twitter for the first time.

Mr. Trump tweeted, without providing evidence: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”Twitter put a warning label in the post and linked to a page that described the claims as “unsubstantiated”.

This unprecedented move by Twitter to fact-check the president followed a  widespread criticism that the social media company has allowed Mr. Trump to use the platform to publicize unsubstantiated and offensive content to his 80 million-plus followers.

As a result, Donald Trump threatened to “strongly regulate” or close down social media companies, as he reacted furiously to Twitter’s move to label his tweets with a fact-check warning for the first time. Following this, Mr. Trump signed an executive order threatening Silicon Valley social media firms with new regulations over free speech on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump said the move was to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.”

“A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States,” he claimed. “They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.”

This order marks a dramatic escalation by Trump in his war with tech companies as they struggle with the growing problem of misinformation on social media. The President has regularly accused sites of censoring conservative speech. The new directive seeks to change a federal law that has spared tech companies from being sued or held liable for most posts, photos, and videos shared by users on their sites. Tech giants herald these protections, known as Section 230, as the bedrock of the Internet. But Trump repeatedly has argued they allow Facebook, Google, and Twitter to censor conservatives with impunity — charges these companies deny.

“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” Trump said before signing the document.

The order signed Thursday encourages the Federal Communications Commission to rethink the scope of Section 230 and when its liability protections apply. The order also seeks to channel complaints about political bias to the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that the White House has asked to probe whether tech companies’ content-moderation policies are in keeping with their pledges of neutrality. The order additionally created a council in cooperation with state attorneys general to probe allegations of censorship based on political views. And it tasked federal agencies with reviewing their spending on social media advertising.

 

While Trump has threatened to penalize tech companies for years, his signing of the order Thursday came in response to a decision by Twitter for their action earlier in the week to mark two of his erroneous tweets with fact-checking labels. The small move set off a firestorm of tweets by the president threatening social media companies with regulations and other punishments.

Section 230

The order does not remove Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), but it would cut federal funding for tech companies that engage in censorship and political conduct, as well as remove statutory liability protections.

Section 230 says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, online platforms that host or republish speech are protected from a wide range of laws that could otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do. (Copyright law, which has a strong constitutional foundation, ordinarily does require sites like Twitter to remove the offending content, or face liability.)

“My executive order calls for new regulations under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make it so that social media companies that engage in censoring any political conduct will not be able to keep their liability shield,” the president said.

“Immunity should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints,” the order said.

Thus, the order states that social media companies who remove or restrict content be exposed to liability “like any traditional editor and publisher that is not an online provider.”

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