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Trump set the stage for tech's free speech title fight. Zuckerberg and Dorsey are the main event.

Analysis: The most important fight for online speech wasn't happening at the White House Instead, it was happening between Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks with reporters after meeting with Senate Republicans at their weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill on May 19, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

President Donald Trump tossed a grenade into the social media world Thursday with an executive order threatening action against tech companies. But the more important fight for online speech wasn't happening at the White House.

Instead, it was happening online and through the media between Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The two men have done more than perhaps anyone else alive to shape the way public debates happen on the internet, and in the current controversy over how the truth is shaped online, they arguably have much more power than the White House.

Trump's executive order was "95% political theater — rhetoric without legal foundation, and without legal impact," Daphne Keller, the platform regulation director at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, said in an email. She said that the underlying issues were important but that the document itself "reads like a stream of consciousness tweetstorm that some poor staffer had to turn into the form of an Executive Order."

Meanwhile, Dorsey and Zuckerberg have been describing increasingly different and competing visions for how social media networks grapple with politics and elections — and taking the occasional shot at each other.

Zuckerberg this week knocked Twitter for the service's new effort at fact-checking Trump's tweets. He told Fox News and then CNBC that internet services shouldn't be "arbiters of truth," even though Facebook itself plays that role sometimes.

Dorsey fired back in a tweet, saying Twitter was simply connecting the dots "so people can judge for themselves" on a sensitive subject like election procedures. Trump had asserted without evidence that mail-in voting is associated with fraud.

"This does not make us an 'arbiter of truth,'" Dorsey wrote.

The back-and-forth is the culmination of rising differences between Facebook and Twitter, which include their handling of political ads: Twitter has stopped taking them, while going into the heat of the 2020 presidential election, Facebook continues to be a magnet for political ads free from any fact-checking.

"Both would argue they're democratic, but that's playing out in very different ways," said Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard University.

Facebook and Twitter are often paired as two early giants of social media, but Facebook is a much larger business, with $71 billion in revenue last year versus $3.5 billion for Twitter.

Ghosh, a former policy adviser at Facebook, said that partly reflects the personalities of the two executives.

"Mark Zuckerberg is on a power trip, and he always has been," he said. "He wants his company to be the biggest company and the most profitable company in the world."

By contrast, he said, Dorsey is focused on creating "a more positive information ecosystem" online. "I think he wants to do the right thing, while I think Zuck is thinking more about profits."

The White House made it clear which social network it was rooting for.

"You have Facebook, and you have Twitter," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News on Thursday. "And you have Mark Zuckerberg, who said, 'It's not my job to be the arbiter of truth.' You have that model, and then you have the Dorsey model, which is completely incoherent in the way it's deployed."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she didn't like either one, calling Twitter's fact-checking "a token thing."

People who work at Facebook and Twitter believe the debate between the two tech companies is far more consequential in the grand scheme of things than whatever Trump does by executive order, according to employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn't have authority to speak publicly.

The competition between the two services may just be the normal, healthy rivalry between businesses, especially Silicon Valley companies that focus on constantly iterating.

"In some ways, it's positive that these companies are taking different approaches rather than the government mandating one singular approach that might not be that great after all," said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at the nonprofit Freedom House.

But the consequences for people who use the services are difficult to predict, and if the platforms become increasingly polarized, no one knows what the impact will be on how people consume and spread information — or on Congress' interest in passing new laws on the subject.

Dorsey and Zuckerberg have been rivals and acquaintances for more than a decade, although it's not clear that they've ever been close.

They co-founded their companies only two years apart, Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, at a time when the field of social media startups seemed wide open. The companies then grew up miles apart in the San Francisco Bay area, with Zuckerberg twice trying to buy Twitter or at least woo Dorsey to work at Facebook.

Tensions between them bubbled up like never before during a two-week stretch last year.

In mid-October, Zuckerberg delivered a speech at Georgetown University in an event filled with academic splendor where he bashed "traditional gatekeepers" of information and vowed not to use Facebook's power as a private company to censor politicians or fact-check their ads.

Days later, Dorsey announced in a tweet that Twitter would stop taking political ads entirely, because, he said, the use of money to attract attention compromised political debates online.

And Dorsey's timing seemed designed to heighten the contrast — he tweeted minutes before Zuckerberg was scheduled to be on a high-profile conference call with Wall Street analysts.

But the relationship between the two men had been odd for years, with the occasional tête-à-tête.

Back in 2011, Zuckerberg pledged to eat meat only from animals he had killed himself, and when he had Dorsey over for dinner one night, he served cold goat meat, Dorsey said in recounting the dinner last year to Rolling Stone magazine. "I just ate my salad," Dorsey said.

In the same interview, he called Zuckerberg a "very, very smart businessman" who will "excel to gain as much market share as possible," although Dorsey said he couldn't tell what Facebook's driving philosophy was beyond that.