The internet, and Twitter in particular, is central to President Donald Trump’s power. His tweets move everything from Pentagon policy on Syria and transgender service to how Republican lawmakers vote on surveillance law. Their frequent falsity is beside the point. It’s the influence that matters.
Now Trump is trying to push a lasting structural change upon the internet, one that internet-freedom advocates fear will entrench a disincentive for any social media company to block disinformation on their platform. And it comes after Twitter, an open sewer for disinformation, took a very meager step to stop Trump from suppressing the vote in November.
In signing an executive order on Thursday, Trump called for “new regulations” with respect to the provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act permitting internet companies to remove or restrict content they host “that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” The provision, Section 230, establishes that social-media and other internet content hosts are platforms, not publishers, and therefore not legally liable for what users say, do, or experience online.
Trump’s proposal declared that “a provider should properly lose the limited liability shield” of Section 230 if it’s found to “silence viewpoints that they dislike.” As a means for determining that, it called for “all executive departments and agencies” to review how they were applying the provision and for a rule-making petition to be filed to the Federal Communications Commission within 60 days. Trump’s order also instructed loyalist Attorney General Bill Barr to propose legislation “useful to promote the policy objectives of this order” and advised heads of various government agencies to review the advertising dollars that they were spending on social media platforms.
Collectively, the order suggests social media companies may face penalties—real or potential—for attempting to police misinformation on their platforms. Either, according to longtime observers, is likely to be enough to prompt those companies to revert to their resting state: opening the sluice-gate of misinformation.
For the president’s critics, it all amounts to a jarring sequence: To stay in power, Trump has taken a step toward erasing the already blurred line between what is and isn’t true online.
“Donald Trump is so committed to preventing Americans from voting that he spent weeks lying about vote by mail, and now he is trying to twist Section 230 and the First Amendment to force Twitter to spread these lies,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the provision’s co-author.
For years, President Trump has viewed his relationship with social-media giants—particularly Twitter, his favorite online medium—as both adversarial and mutually beneficial. Much in the same way that the president has routinely assailed the credibility and perceived disloyalty of Fox News, but won’t actually ditch the network, he takes a similar attitude toward a major online platform like Twitter, according to two people close to him. He often will complain. But he is extremely unlikely to take the ultimate step and personally abandon his own Twitter account.
Trump sees Twitter as one of his best communications assets. Though he insisted on Thursday that there was “nothing” more he “rather do than get rid of my whole Twitter account,” he claimed he simply could not do so because it was his medium for going around the press corps. He credits the platform, in part, for how he was able to dominate the national conversation during his successful 2016 presidential run. He “does not want to give up something he thinks helps him win,” one of those sources said. That commitment hasn’t stopped him from threatening the company to score political points or because he feels personally aggrieved.
Indeed, Thursday’s executive order has been conceptually in the works for many months. According to two individuals familiar with the process, the Trump White House convened multiple meetings in the summer of 2019, inviting officials from the Justice Department, the FCC, the FTC, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to the White House to discuss crafting an executive order that similarly would have targeted social media giants’ legal liability.
Those efforts were largely managed by White House domestic-policy aide James Sherk, a former labor economics analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who had the unenviable task of organizing a protracted drafting process demanded by an irked Trump. The intra-administration sessions caused predictable headaches, with officials unsure of how to reconcile the legal technicalities of the directive with Trump’s demands and fits.
“We didn’t know if this was busy-work to satisfy one of the president’s mood swings, or if we were actually getting something done,” said one former senior Trump administration official.
In one of the early meetings that summer, the White House proposed language to agency officials that read as if the president was, for instance, ordering the FCC to redefine the liability shield of Section 230, the sources recounted. White House officials had to be reminded by agency envoys that Trump wasn’t allowed to do that (though he can ask the NTIA to petition the FCC to conduct an independent review on the matter), and that such language would be quickly, and likely successfully, challenged. Still, many of the agency officials played along, for fear of upsetting the White House.
“Nobody in the room wanted to kill this,” one of the sources familiar with the discussions said. “[But] very few, if any, wanted anything to do with it.”
Thursday’s action is a culmination of that pent up frustration along with years’ worth of right-wing objections that social media “shadowbans” right-wing content. That objection was dismissed by a federal appeals court on Wednesday, which found that conservatives suing Twitter and Facebook could not demonstrate that account deactivation for terms-of-service violations amounted to political suppression.
But the specific issue prompting Trump to act was not any generic grievance. It was his false assertion that voting by mail—an expansion of which is under consideration because of the novel coronavirus that has killed 100,000 Americans in three months—will lead to systematic voter fraud.
Twitter told CNN that the president’s tweets promoted “potentially misleading information about voting processes.” And, indeed, there’s no evidence of meaningful voter-fraud related to mail-in balloting. In fact, five states, including Republican-run Utah, already vote entirely by mail.
“To be absolutely clear, absentee and mail voting in America is secure and election officials are confident in the security measures they have in place. It is critical this year that election officials ensure every American citizen has the option to vote absentee if they want to, and have safe polling place options,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “This is critical for public health and critical for the health of our democracy. The president’s actions are making it harder for public officials to take the steps that they need to ensure a safe, secure, and healthy election this November.”
Twitter’s solution, however, was not to take down the erroneous tweets or ban Trump’s account for a terms-of-service violation. Rather, it appended a hypertext alert below the tweet urging users to “get the facts about mail-in ballots.”
To Trump, this was “Big Tech... doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 election,” as he (naturally) tweeted Wednesday night. And he insisted that rectifying it by executive order would be tantamount to “a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!”
It’s a familiar distortion for those who dealt with the aftermath of Russia’s disinformation campaign on social media during the 2016 election. One of them, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) pushed for internet companies to provide greater transparency around political ads on their platforms. Warner’s measure sought to bolster the integrity of hosted content while sidestepping suggestions that the companies ought to determine what on their platforms is and isn’t true. He expressed alarm at the “baseless” claim Trump made about censorship and its implications for voter suppression.
“While many of us have raised concerns for several years now about the opaque and inconsistent content moderation practices of large platforms and the ways that Section 230 has been unjustly invoked to protect platforms that facilitate fraud, widespread consumer harms, and civil rights violations, it’s strange to see the president mimic some of those legitimate concerns in support of a baseless claim that he and fellow conservatives are being disadvantaged or censored online,” Warner told The Daily Beast in advance of the executive order’s release.
“The president has openly boasted about his prominence on social media, even while routinely violating the policies of each platform,” Warner continued. “This latest effort to cow platforms into allowing Trump, dark money groups, and right-wing militias to exploit their tools to sow disinformation, engage in targeted harassment, and suppress voter participation is a sad distraction from the legitimate efforts to establish common sense regulations for dominant social media platforms.”
The irony is that Twitter’s tentative step toward confronting deceit on its platform is a departure from social-media firms’ economic logic, in which what matters is the mass collection and commodification of user data, not hosting truthful discourse. That logic explains why Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg criticized Twitter for playing the “arbiter of truth.” That position was also captured in a recently leaked memo from Facebook executive Andy Bosworth that compared ensuring veracity on Facebook to the temptations of JRR Tolkein’s One Ring, a dark power that corrupts the ringbearer.
"That 'dark power' notion is a rationalization meant to deflect attention from the economic imperatives central to the tech firms’ business model," said Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and a professor emerita at Harvard Business School.
“Their algorithms are tuned to maximize behavioral data intake into their supply chains for computation into behavioral predictions. They are compelled to extract data at scale and scope… that means volumes of as many kinds of data as possible. In this economic logic, there is no room for judging data content. The corporations are radically indifferent to whether data are true or false—it’s all the same to their revenue flows.” Zuboff explained.
Section 230 was written before that economic logic took hold, when the model of the internet was a bulletin board rather than the “bloodstream” of contemporary life, Zuboff continued. And however content-agnostic social media companies portray their algorithms to be, those algorithms do push content on to users, as NBC’s Ben Collins has documented with the spread on Facebook of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
“Mr. Trump wants to confront the power of these companies and how they operate, but instead of fighting for truth, he’s fighting for the right to lie, to inject poison into the body politic,” Zuboff said. “The tech companies and the government are in a larger existential battle right now, like two Death Stars battling each other. Both want to operate outside the rule of law and democratic norms.”