The move raises questions on free speech and corporate power in the digital age.
US President Donald Trump is preparing to sign an executive order today that could roll back the immunity that tech giants have over the content on their platforms.
According to multiple reports, the directive attempts to curtail legal protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which spares companies from being held liable for the content posted by users.
The order, which is still in the draft stage and subject to change, would permit federal regulators to go after social media companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter on the grounds of suppressing free speech when they delete posts or suspend users.
Once passed, the order is likely to be challenged in court.
It marks Trump’s most aggressive effort to crack down on online platforms, coming after Twitter slapped fact-check notices on two of the president’s tweets over unsubstantiated claims that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud and ineligible voters getting ballots.
Trump and his supporters have long accused social media giants of stifling conservative voices.
Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can’t let a more sophisticated version of that....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020
Under Section 230, online companies are protected because they are considered forums and not publishers. By fact-checking Trump, that distinction becomes blurred through the intervention of editorial judgment.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a critic of Big Tech companies, sent a letter to Dorsey on Wednesday asking why the company should continue to receive legal immunity after “choosing to editorialize on President Trump’s tweets.”
It also raises thorny questions about the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the future of digital expression and the extent to which the government can influence the decisions that private companies make about their digital products and services.
New media, old battlefields
Section 230 has long been the subject of debate in Congress. As tech companies have grown in size and power, many lawmakers have pushed to modify the statute.
Attorney General William P. Barr raised the possibility that the government should do so in an inquiry on the statute in February. “No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts,” he said. “They have become titans.”
Along with the constitutional First Amendment, Section 230 has allowed social media companies the freedom to set their own rules on platforms and police it as they see fit.
Critics claim those exceptions have also allowed Silicon Valley’s firms to skirt responsibility for the harmful content that flourishes on their platforms, from hate speech, terrorist propaganda to conspiracy theories.
With the allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential elections and the ouster of Cambridge Analytica – each tied to the role played by tech giants in circulating disinformation – social media censorship and data privacy have become key touchstones in public discourse.
Some fear tech companies lack the incentives to fight misinformation on their platforms as technology to fake video and voices becomes more advanced.
New media terrains have also become fraught with partisan divisions, increasingly leading to claims of grievance on political grounds.
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! They tried hard in 2016, and lost. Now they are going absolutely CRAZY. Stay Tuned!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2020
For many conservatives, the latest move by Twitter is only part of a much broader trend of censorship and bias by a liberal-leaning media ecosystem. This in part is used to explain the growing conservative backlash against Big Tech.
However, these same social media platforms have routinely provided space for far-right groups to gather and distribute their messages.
Issues of free speech and content moderation are at the heart of expression in the digital age. Should media companies be allowed to fact-check? And who gets to distinguish good content from bad content?
With the evolution of disinformation campaigns in recent years, the aversion to anything that resembles censorship fails to reckon with the implications of online manipulation on public discourse.
A democratic marketplace of ideas governed by stipulations of healthy debate might now appear antiquated. The digital terrain is now governed by algorithmic filter bubbles and ideologically-hardened echo chambers.
While Trump’s peddling of controversial statements or outright falsehoods on platforms like Twitter might draw sharp rebuke, the worry is the precedent that could be set.
Once you begin fact-checking Trump, a labyrinth of compliance measures become necessary if it were to be applied evenly.
What about statements which are false but left alone – do they become truth by default? Can fact-checking systems be deployed in a neutral fashion?
It also becomes unclear how an unelected and unaccountable decision-making body at a private company should be given such power over public discourse.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pre-emptively tried to soften any blowback from the White House by questioning the wisdom behind Twitter’s decision.
“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” he said. “Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey shot back, saying that Twitter would continue to point out false information about elections globally.