IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Victims of online harassment worry about resurgence after Trump's executive order

"Trump's narrow focus doesn't address the true damage being done," said Andy Parker, who has been the target of online trolls since his daughter was murdered.
Image: Jimmy Greene,  Nelba M?rquez-Greene
Jimmy Greene kisses his wife, Nelba Marquez-Greene, as he holds a portrait of their daughter, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Ana Marquez-Greene, at a news conference in Newtown, Conn., on Jan. 14, 2013.Jessica Hill / AP file

Nelba Marquez-Greene got an alert from Facebook's "Memories" feature Thursday reminding her of a post she made on the social network six years ago to the day.

The post was a screenshot she took of "Sandy Hook Hoax," a since-banned Facebook group that claimed that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where her 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, died, never happened.

For years, conspiracy theorists flooded social media with harassment of Sandy Hook parents, falsely claiming that the mass shooting didn't happen and that the parents were crisis actors. Victims of other traumatic events have faced similar attacks on social media platforms, often with little recourse.

That began to change in recent years. Because of better content moderation and changing policies at Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Sandy Hook truthers had been losing steam.

But Marquez-Greene is worried that an executive order President Donald Trump signed Thursday will take away social media companies' power to crack down on "crisis actor" conspiracy theorists and trolls.

Without the power to ban trolls targeting victims of tragedies, disinformation peddlers could be given de facto immunity from bans and suspensions that can come with harassing the grieving online.

"Executive orders that knowingly or unknowingly greenlight harassment by conspiracy theorists, while unconscionable, seem consistent with the ethos of this administration," Marquez-Greene said.

"Not everyone will survive this. We already know that," she added.

President Donald Trump issued the order after Twitter applied a fact-check badge beneath two of his tweets about mail-in voting this week. The order claims that online platforms such as Twitter have been labeling or removing content that doesn't violate any stated terms of service and deleting content and accounts "with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse."

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and most other consumer technology platforms started out with little to no moderation, often allowing anything other than pornography on their platforms. In recent years, they've changed their policies to begin cracking down on harassment, hate speech and misinformation. The efforts are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which is the law that Trump hopes to weaken.

Sarah T. Roberts, a UCLA professor who teaches commercial content moderation and social media, said the executive order could make it harder for platforms to enforce rules against conspiracy theorists who push harassment campaigns against loved ones in tragedies.

"To be sure, if anyone has benefited from this discretion on the part of platforms, it has been Trump himself, who routinely breaks the rules of engagement that are enforced on other users on his platform of choice — Twitter — and does so with impunity," Roberts said.

Andy Parker, who has been the target of conspiracy theories since his daughter, Alison Parker, was murdered on live TV in 2015, said "the president and his allies' assertions that conservative voices are being quashed is patently untrue."

Parker said the pain he endures because of trolls on social media could be aggravated by the executive order.

"The actual harm done by social media is that it allows real people to be hurt," Parker said. "As long as Google, Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter have immunity from liability, they will continue to disregard their own terms of service. And Trump's narrow focus doesn't address the true damage being done."

Parker testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, urging lawmakers to push back on tech giants like YouTube and Facebook, which still host videos of his daughter's murder and trolls dedicated to tarnishing her memory.

"Murder videos, targeted harassment and hate speech — that's what amending Section 230 needs to be about," Parker said.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

While YouTube committed in 2019 to remove "content denying that well-documented violent events, like the Holocaust or the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, took place," Sandy Hook conspiracy groups are still active on Facebook.

Marquez-Greene said she believes Trump's executive order "sure does send a message" about how they'll be protected online.

"That this is a focus of this administration at a time where over 100,000 Americans are dead to COVID typifies the cruelty and vapidness of this president," she said.

"What he fails to understand is pain."