Cover: Public Domain
In the last week, President Trump’s volatile relationship with social media platforms reached a new fever pitch. Even though, according to Axios, “Trumps online fan size dwarfs Biden’s on Twitter (77m to 4.9m), Facebook (27m to 1.7m) and Instagram (19.1m to 1.8m)”, the President feels like he is being treated unfairly by the “Masters of the Universe“. In fact, Breitbart claims “the Big Tech companies [are intent] on seizing control of free speech around the world.” To that end, on Thursday Trump signed an executive order that would “crack down” on social media platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. This decision appears to have been catalyzed by Twitter choosing to fact-check some of the president’s tweets on Tuesday in regards to mail-in voting, which Trump claims is unfair censorship. Trump perceived these actions to be a concerted effort by the “Silicon Valley Liberals” to thwart his reelection bid. In a defiant response, the president tweeted, “Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election. If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!” Here’s how it’s playing out:
On the Left: The president’s latest directive is not sitting well with progressives who argue his attempt to “crack down” on (what he sees as) censorship is censorship itself. Trump claims that Twitter’s fact-check is a violation of the First Amendment, but Laurence H. Tribe and Joshua A. Geltzer, at The Washington Post, explain “…it’s no constitutional violation …the First Amendment applies to the government – not private actors like Twitter.” Moreover, Tribe and Geltzer clarify that Twitter attaching a fact-check label to Trump’s Tweet is a form of speech that would be protected under the First Amendment. They explain that the irony lies within Trump threatening to “strongly regulate, or close [social media platforms] down” because to do so would be an “obvious” First Amendment violation. They conclude there is no legal basis for Trump to take such an action and for him to follow through with it would be the actual constitutional violation of free speech.
On the Right: Conservatives have rallied around the president, as they have long believed that social media platforms are working to silence their voices. John Daniel Davidson, at The Federalist, argues platforms like Twitter should be held to the same standards as traditional publishers if they choose to “editorialize” and fact-check users’ content. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act exempts companies like Twitter from certain compulsory standards that are followed by traditional publishers. This essentially protects the company from being sued if a user happens to share false or misleading content on their platform. However, Davidson suggests that “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey [needs to] explain why his company should continue to enjoy Section 230 protections when it has clearly decided to act like a traditional publisher.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) echoed these sentiments, claiming that “Fact-checking like this makes a mockery of social-media company’s claim to be a neutral ‘platform’ or ‘form’ – rather than a publisher who’s subject to libel laws.”
Flag This: The resulting fallout of Trump’s decision could lead to greater conflicts and perhaps high-profile judicial cases involving free speech. Though the immediate details of the situation reveal an interesting strategic dilemma for both Twitter and Trump, in many ways the two are dependent on one another. Like the Star Wars meme suggests, “Could Trump become the very thing he swore to destroy?” (A less dramatic case of “mutually assured destruction,” if you can accept the metaphor.) Whether you enjoy or abhor his tweets, Trump provides Twitter with a significant amount of cultural relevance (i.e. publicity). On the other hand, Trump’s usage of the platform is a vital way for him to speak directly to the electorate. Accordingly, if Trump continues to push against social media platforms, it could result in a repeal of Section 230 protections. Ironically, that could potentially be damaging to both him and Twitter.