Trump's executive order targeting Twitter will hurt users far more than the company

The draft order looks designed to chill users' free speech by opening social media companies up to frivolous lawsuits. Conservatives will still cheer.
Image: Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Aug. 27, 2018.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Ashley Pratte

If you thought Trump’s coronavirus response was dangerous, just wait for his latest act: threatening our First Amendment rights.

Trump has apparently been stewing over Twitter’s recent decision to institute a “fact-checking” feature on its platform — and its recent fact-check of one of his tweets about mail-in ballots, which involved putting a tiny exclamation point and the linked phrase "Get the facts about mail-in ballots" under it, which led to an internal page noting what was untrue. That action seemingly prompted a tyrannical Twitter response to shut down or regulate all social media platforms that he believes silence and suppress conservative voices.

And Thursday, he says he will issue a long-promised, and much-maligned, executive order on the subject.

It’s unclear at this point what exactly Trump's executive order will contain or how constitutional it will turn out to be — but even the threat of it is extremely dangerous. In the past, Trump has suggested that government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission take some sort of regulatory action, but they’ve resisted, unwilling to become arbiters of political speech on social media platforms. Trump, in particular, was warned that an effort to have the FCC police social media neutrality could undermine his previous deregulation effort throwing out net neutrality, and the FTC chairman testified in 2018 that it wasn't clear they had any jurisdiction if there was no deception at play.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the draft order included two provisions: one which would direct the Department of Commerce to petition the FCC to redefine a long-standing provision of communications law called Section 230, which allows companies leeway to regulate abuse (or anything else) on their platforms without holding them legally liable for anything they miss or anyone they annoy though that regulation; and another which would direct the FTC to consider whether complaints about tech companies' political bias are true, making their claims that there is no such bias deceptive.

Either would prove chilling to regular Americans' use of the internet, whether they are liberal or conservative.

And if Trump does move forward with any serious regulations or restrictions — other than forming a White House task force to study anti-conservative bias in social media, which has reportedly already been under consideration but was not in the draft seen by the Post — on how these private companies run their sites, it could prompt a whole onslaught of questions.

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While we know there were bad actors on social media platforms — most notably Facebook — during the 2016 election, Trump's potential executive orders are clearly not designed to avoid a repeat of the problems, which ultimately benefited the Trump campaign. Ongoing investigations into the privacy and advertising policies of the platforms have altered the way these companies do business and they’re supposedly adhering to all guidelines set forth to address misinformation, whether those prove to be fully effective or not.

The problem, of course, has repeatedly come when the president is the source of that misinformation — which, if it happened in other countries, would be called unacceptable propaganda. Amid calls by the president's opponents for platforms to remove unacceptable misinformation, and unable to determine whether the president is spreading it on purpose (as his opponents contend) or because he's simply unaware of the truth — and unwilling to decide — Twitter actually took the middle road: the company left it up and marked it false.

It would behoove the president to recognize that private companies such as Twitter and Facebook have the right to flag content that spreads false data or misinformation that could potentially be harmful to Americans if it were to become viral — and that it's better than them becoming arbiters of his intent, which is what his critics want, and what his previous attempts to regulate social media would make the FCC or FTC become.

It would also behoove him to drop this because the very social media platforms and tech giants the president rails against have been his biggest campaign tools and, if he turns his followers against him or cause them to abandon the platforms, he’s not going to have the same soapbox on another platform or get the same reaction he’s used to receiving when he tweets something absurd.

But mostly, the president — any president — should be above using the office of the presidency and the American government to target these private sector companies he views as his political enemies. Republicans should stand against Trump, if he really pursues it, if only because it opens the door for a Democratic president to do the same.

Instead, the conservatives who used to be ardent defenders of free speech and free markets are now just champions of Trump — a false idol of conservatism.

And, alarmingly, this isn’t the first time Trump has crusaded against First Amendment rights, which are a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy. Throughout his time on the 2016 campaign trail and then during his presidency he has railed against the media, banned his administration officials from appearing on certain networks, called for cable network licenses to be revoked based on their coverage of him and even tried to ban mainstream outlets from press briefings.

The First Amendment isn't selective, though; it doesn’t just apply to Trump voters, or only to whomever votes for a Democratic president. The freedom of the press to do its job, the freedom of companies to make their own statements (and policies) and the freedom of Americans to speak their mind are all protected rights for everyone. Trump’s dangerous crusade to use the government to limit or even censor free speech should be called out for what it is: tyrannical.

Free speech is a foundation of our society and vital to a healthy, vibrant democracy and should be protected at all costs — no matter which political party holds power.

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