Terry H. Schwadron
May 29, 2020
OK, you’re an opinionated, unrestrained Donald Trump.
Step one. Use Twitter to distribute whatever happens to pop into your head without fact, thought or care for any truth other than your own partisan view. Mostly what arises are thoughts about yourself and how you’re seen, so the way is free to smack anyone who doesn’t agree, with no regard to personal insult, law, appropriateness, or thought about the reader.
Step two. Get angry when Twitter, after years of dealing with provably false statements, mildly, thoughtfully, has put a label on two of your millions of tweets, to say this one, um, might not be true. Hey, they could have deleted it or kicked you out of the tweet club.
Step three. Sign executive order that says anyone can now sue Twitter, Facebook and the other social media companies if they don’t like what is said — the law calls it waiving a provision offering a liability shield.
Step four. Expect that everyone will love you for decisive leadership.
Step five. What do you mean this might backfire? What do you mean people are now suing over my own tweets. This was supposed to affect Democrats, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, and Adam Schiff — you know, my enemies. What do you mean I can’t do this? See you in court!
Technically, this is a call to reinterpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, in which online companies have broad immunity from liability for content created by their users. The reports of the draft of the executive order refers to “selective censoring,” would allow the Commerce Department to try to refocus how broadly Section 230 is applied, and to let the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission create a way to report online bias.
Solution in Search of Problem
Apart from its questionable legality and its status as yet another attempted distraction from 100,000 coronavirus deaths, the question is how this action solves anything. It may be meant to lessen review of conservative views, but that’s not what it does; indeed, why wouldn’t Twitter now be liable for every falsehood that Trump utters.
Here’s the reas0ning — to0 much “editorializing”: “The choices that Twitter makes, when it chooses to suppress, edit, blacklist, shadowban are editorial decisions, pure and simple, they are editorial decisions,” Trump said, saying it was inappropriate political activism. “What they choose to fact check and what they choose to ignore or promote is nothing more than a political activism group,” he said.
Yes, the social media companies are being exploited by loads of opinion devoid of fact, and allow — even encourage — bad actors to advertise and use their channels to promote political, cultural, social opinion, that will provoke others. Still, they have some rules about personal attacks, and Congress, and other nations, have been pressuring them to halt bots, false fronts, and political manipulation by Russians and other foreign agents.
It is hard to see how this executive order addresses this issue.
Trump says he believes that political conservatives are being challenged by Twitter and Facebook, but there is little evidence of that — and he seems overly concerned only about his own voice. If anything, social media channels are filled with even extreme right-wing postings. A few individuals, including Michael Savage, have been kicked off Twitter for repeated untruths that were aimed at individual students and parents of the school shootings in Newtown, for example.
If anything, this executive order seems to mean that people or agencies that I tend to see as allies will go to court to seek damages from every attack statements from those with whom I disagree.
As such, it may be punishment for operators of Twitter or Facebook, but does nothing to promote any conservative, liberal or other line of posts, nor does it do much for protections of freedom of speech.
The Practical Effects
Eventually, either the court system will stop functions from overruns or Twitter and Facebook will be sued out of business, or we will solely have pet photos on these media.
For that matter, we’ve just seen Donald Trump twitch in response to Twitter. The order sets for no real guide of new rules, for example, once again raising the issue of how to judge effectiveness.
As one columnist noted, “Trump’s new order enshrines the hallowed principle that he and other conservatives should be able to lie and spread disinformation on social media without any fear of moderation that might challenge, fact-check or correct those lies.” Trump forgets that the same is true for his opponents.
If Trump had been more deft, he would have lined up his foe, the ACLU, to be his ally in a free-speech campaign. But this is simply a twitch, and has little chance of passing as any bill in Congress. A court challenge is guaranteed.
At the end of the day, none of us will trust a Trump tweet any more or less, and there are still 100,000 dead from coronavirus.