US President Donald Trump on 28 May signed an executive order that has finally taken on the mighty social media trio of Facebook, Twitter and Google platform YouTube whose censorship patterns have left a lot of people of a certain political persuasion high and dry. With this executive order, the US government gains oversight of political speech on the Internet.
The order in effect amends a federal American law that had so far spared tech companies from prosecutions. The Trump administration took this step on observing that the tech giants were ‘misusing’ Section 230 to muzzle free speech rather than uphold it. Before this, Trump would argue ad nauseam that Facebook, Google and Twitter censors conservatives with impunity.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” Trump said before signing the document.
The Federal Communications Commission will now rethink the scope and applicability of Section 230. Those unhappy with their posts being pulled down can now approach the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that the White House has instructed to investigate whether social platforms’ content-moderation policies are in keeping with their professional pledges of neutrality.
The order leads to the creation of a council in cooperation with state attorneys general to probe allegations of political censorship. More importantly, the federal agencies, empowered by this executive order from President Trump, can now review their spending on social media advertising.
The signature of Trump on the order on Thursday follows a decision by Twitter earlier in the week to mark two of his tweets with fact-checking labels. Interestingly, the websites Twitter and Facebook employ for fact checks betray an open leftist bias. For instance, in India, Facebook has employed AltNews, which feels the urge to check a claim only when it comes from the supporters of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its ideological fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In contrast, OpIndia, which shows a pattern of working for the opposite camp, is not recognised as a fact-checker by Facebook.
Federal regulators, emboldened by the order of President Trump, can now write new rules and issue new punishments for companies exhibiting political bias.
Will companies challenge Trump in court?
Sources in the US say tech companies are mulling over the option to “fight back” with a lawsuit challenging the executive order.
While a few companies or their proxies will almost certainly challenge the Trump order in court, people who have been at the receiving end of censorship by social networking sites are elated. At the same time, Trump’s detractors and critics today feature prominently under the tab “Top” if one conducts a Twitter search with the keywords “executive order“.
“This is simply setting the wheels of law enforcement and regulation in motion against a private company for questioning the president,” said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a Washington trade group that represents Facebook, Google and other major tech companies.
Facebook insists it’s neutral
Facebook spokeswoman Liz Bourgeois said in a statement that the company believes in protecting freedom of expression along with protecting users from harmful content. “Those rules apply to everybody,” she claimed.
“Repealing or limiting Section 230 will have the opposite effect. It will restrict more speech online, not less,” Borgeois added.
Google responds to executive order
Google spokeswoman Riva Sciuto said in a statement that undermining Section 230 could hurt the economy and the American role in Internet freedom. “We have clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint,” she said.
“Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences,” the spokesperson said.
This flies in the face of the fact that Google’s product YouTube pulls down content if it receives what it calls “community strikes” or if the content has keywords that may even misleadingly suggest the video is critical of the Communist Party of China.
Twitter reacts to Trump order
With a tweet yesterday, Twitter said that the executive order was “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.”
The controversial order immediately pitted social media’s two biggest names on opposite sides of the debate. In a series of tweets, Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey said Wednesday: “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’ Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”
Contrast this with the fact that Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey had admitted in 2018 that those who worked for the social media giant had their own biases — and that they’re “more left-leaning”.
“We need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is more left-leaning,” Dorsey had said. “And I think it’s important to articulate our own bias and to share it with people so that people understand us. But we need to remove our bias from how we act and our policies and our enforcement,” he said on 20 August 2018.
At the Oval Office, Trump yesterday blasted the tech industry for having amassed “unchecked power.” Attorney General William P Barr echoed the sentiment to say that the Justice Department was helping make legislations to regulate the industry. Indications are that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc will be held liable for the content that they choose to spare or pull down.
This Trump order is a logical culmination of states attorneys general and Congress’s probes into tech giants’ market power. They may file antitrust lawsuits targeting Google this summer. Arizona’s attorney general had earlier this week dragged the search giant to court for privacy violations.
It is to be seen whether the FTC and FCC, two independent agencies that operate separately of Trump’s Cabinet and his political influence, are indeed “committed to robust enforcement of consumer protection and competition laws,” consistent with its authority. Spokesman Peter Kaplan insisted they are.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (R) said it would review the government’s request that the agency issue new rules on the matter.
The West Wing has for years debated the need for an executive order targeting political speech. Even before the executive order had been signed, the Justice Department had been working on re-assessing Section 230. “They’re editorial decisions,” Trump said on 28 May. “In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform, they become an editor with a viewpoint. I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook and perhaps others.”
Market response to Trump
Facebook Inc’s FB, -1.60% stock declined 1.6% after a recent winning streak. Google parent Alphabet Inc. GOOGL, -0.14% GOOG, -0.07% shares were flat. Twitter and Facebook shares rose slightly in after-hours trading after the order was signed.
Snap Inc SNAP, +7.35% and Pinterest Inc. PINS, +3.61%, which seemed to escape Trump’s wrath, both had solid days on Wall Street: Snap shares closed up 7.4%, and Pinterest advanced 3.6.