This week, for the first time, Twitter fact-checked tweets from President Donald Trump. Two days later, on Thursday, POTUS signed an executive order putting Twitter, along with Facebook and Google, in the crosshairs.
At the heart of Thursday’s action is the accusation that the tech giants are censoring conservatives and suppressing free speech. According to the president, such platforms have had “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.”
The pair of tweets that triggered the order came on Tuesday, when POTUS said mail-in ballots were certain to be “substantially fraudulent” and railed against California for enabling “a rigged election.”
Soon after, Twitter tacked on an exclamation point and a single line at the bottom of the messages: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” The notice links to a lengthy list of articles that fact-check the claim.
We added a label to two @realDonaldTrump Tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans as part of our efforts to enforce our civic integrity policy. We believe those Tweets could confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) May 28, 2020
Reportedly enraged, the president pushed through an executive order that takes aim at companies protected from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The 1996 law essentially states that platforms aren’t liable for the content of its users: “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.” The executive order does not repeal Section 230.
During the signing, President Trump — who went as far as accusing Twitter of election interference — told reporters that he would shut down the platform if his lawyers can suss out a way to do it. “I’d have to go through a legal process,” he said.
But it’s not clear what that path would look like. There’s seemingly no basis for such action against a private company. And despite Trump’s threat to “remove or totally change” Section 230, he couldn’t do that alone. Congressional action would be required.
Beyond legislation, attorney general William Barr indicated that the Justice Department would seek to sue social media companies, saying that the statute “has been stretched way beyond its original intention.”
Along with Twitter, Facebook and Google were also named in the order.
Beleaguered social media companies have been grappling with the disinformation era, whether from bots that sow discord, scurrilous political ads or valid users spreading inaccurate information.
The platforms have different approaches. Facebook does not fact-check political speech — chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg told a reporter that Facebook shouldn’t be the “arbiter of truth” for people’s online speech. Responding to what seemed like a subtle dig, Twitter ceo Jack Dorsey said that adding a fact-check to the president’s tweets “does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.'”
Neither is the platform singling Trump out. Twitter also added fact-checks to tweets from China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who said the coronavirus outbreak might have started in the U.S. and then spread to China by the U.S. military.
The platform also applied the fact-checking labels to an array of tweets that falsely identified a man in a red baseball cap as Derek Chauvin, an officer involved in the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died on Monday after police pinned him down by kneeling on his neck.
Twitter called the image “manipulated media.”