A new chapter just unfolded in the ongoing conflict about censorship,online speech, and social media. This little drama has carried on basically since the Communications Decency Act of the 1990’s, but the rising popularity of social media platforms, especially for political discourse, has upped the stakes considerably.
Twitter has started flagging some of Trump’s tweets as “disinformation.” On top of that they are providing what they call “fact checking” resources very conveniently, right next to his tweets. It started with this one:
Twitter made sure to share the usual rhetoric that comes with this new trend known as “fact checking:” they’ve referenced “experts” so we the people can close the book on this one and move on. The problem is, I didn’t ask them to fact check. Nor did I ask them to point me to the right experts. I can bet you didn’t either. But they’re doing it and Trump (predictably) is what you might call “triggered.”
To be fair, them putting a fact check label on his tweets are not going to stop a determined user from reading them. But if we’re being fair, we have to acknowledge that Twitter is displaying some real partisanship. It's as simple as this: if they’re going to fact check him, shouldn’t they fact check everybody? And the fact is, they don’t have the resources to do that. So it's certainly not good for the public perception of their brand. However, they are within their rights to do this since they are a private company, right?
But back to the question at hand: does Trump’s EO actually do anything? Are we going to notice any sort of effect?
To really examine this question, we have to understand the power the President has with an Executive Order. The POTUS can draw up EO’s whenever he pleases, but they can only clarify or extend existing legislation. In this case, the legislation he is referring is Section 230 of the CDA. Section 230 says that social media platforms are protected from liability for what is said by users on their platforms.
Trump’s concern appears to be that this means they cannot be held liable for the censorship of certain users. Users have thrown multiple lawsuits at Twitter and they’ve all failed. This leaves us with the conclusion that if we don’t like their behavior, we can go somewhere else. But as we all well know, Twitter is Trump’s favorite platform, and he’s not about to simply bounce.
The clarification, in this case, is that the immunity provided by Section 230 will not be extended to platforms that “pretend” to purport free speech while practicing censorship:
“It is the policy of the United States that the scope of that immunity should be clarified: the immunity should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.”
One tenet of this is stripping their immunity if they act in ways that are not consistent with their declared terms, conditions and policies. Basically, if they’re going to act a certain way, they have to say it.
This is the basis for the whole of the EO. As of right now, it looks as though there will be very little, if any, impact on the we the users of the internet. So far, Twitter has continued to label tweets by President Trump since the order took effect. So that hasn’t changed. If you feel unfairly censored and want to have a go at suing a tech giant, that proposition just got a little brighter -- in theory. But whether this EO will impact how the courts handle such cases remains to be seen.
This is just one more chapter in the story. It appears to do very little to impact our daily lives, but the ripple effects could eventually create unforeseeable change in the way we engage in political discourse.
Luckily, we don’t have to rely entirely on politicians to fight the good fight in the name of free speech. There’s plenty we can do ourselves. For suggestions on very easy ways to support free speech (that don’t cost money or a lot of time) you can see this Intenet Censorship article we wrote a few months back. The best way, of course, is to not support platforms that engage in censorship. You can see a list of other social media platforms that are growing in popularity, some of which make promises to protect your speech and your personal information in ways that the major platforms will not.