In a feud with Twitter, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday asking federal regulators to revisit the 1996 law that protects websites from liability for what their users post.
The executive order came a response to Twitter's having added a fact-check label to a pair of Trump's tweets for the first time this week. The message included a link directing users to a page with news reports debunking the tweets, in which Trump claimed there was "NO WAY" an election with boosted mail-in voting would be legitimate.
A representative for Twitter told NBC News this week that the tweets "contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots." The spokesperson added that the company rolled out a policy this month to combat misinformation.
With Attorney General William Barr standing alongside him, Trump said he was acting against what he called one of the greatest threats to free speech.
"We're here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly, and you know what's going on as well as anybody," Trump said. "It's not good."
"They've had unchecked power to censure, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences," he added.
Trump, who has weaponized Twitter throughout his presidency, has long complained that social media companies are biased against conservatives.
Some prominent Republicans, like Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, have suggested making changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The idea has drawn attention in left-leaning circles, as well.
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Trump spent days fuming over the fact-check, saying Thursday that it's "so ridiculous" for Twitter to make the case that mail-in ballots aren't subject to fraud.
"How stupid, there are examples, & cases, all over the place. Our election process will become badly tainted & a laughingstock all over the World. Tell that to your hater @yoyoel," Trump tweeted, tagging Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of site integrity, who had come under conservative scrutiny for past anti-Trump and anti-Republican tweets.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO, responded to backlash against Roth on Wednesday night, saying: "There is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that's me. Please leave our employees out of this."
Waving around a cover of the New York Post with Roth's face emblazoned on it, Trump suggested Thursday that he might try to shut down Twitter if it was "not honorable" and if the company was "able to be legally shut down."
"I think we shut it down, as far as I'm concerned, but I'd have to go through a legal process," Trump said, adding, "If it were able to be legally shut down, I would do it."
Twitter's public policy handle tweeted Thursday night,"This EO is a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms."
Earlier Thursday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president seeks to ensure that "the rights of all Americans to speak, tweet and post are protected."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., slammed the executive order in a statement Thursday, calling Trump's effort "a desperate distraction from his failure to provide a national testing strategy to defeat COVID-19."
"The president's executive order does nothing to address big Internet companies' complete failure to fight the spread of disinformation," Pelosi said. "Instead, the president is encouraging Facebook and other social media giants to continue to exploit and profit off falsehoods with total impunity — while at the same time directing the federal government to dismantle efforts to help users distinguish fact from fiction."
Trump said in the Oval Office that his voter fraud claims were about the potential for widespread "fraud and abuse." If states made mail-in voting more widespread, Trump said, U.S. elections "would be a total joke" and the U.S. "would be the laughingstock of the world."
A spokesman for former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's apparent Democratic opponent, called the order an "abuse of power."
"In Donald Trump’s world, the problem isn’t his lies, it is that he can’t always get away with them," said Biden campaign spokesman Bill Russo. "Today’s Executive Order not only constitutes an extreme abuse of power, it also demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the role and function of the federal government.
Multiple studies over the years have found that voter fraud isn't a widespread problem. Both Democratic and Republican officials overseeing mail-in voting processes have also outlined proven steps — most importantly, signature verification — to ensure the integrity of the system.
A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement on Thursday that repealing or changing the law "will restrict more speech online, not less. By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”