Here’s why the President’s Executive Order targeting social media is not “all hat/no cattle” or “pure political theater”, or “just another distraction”…
Seems like a big part of Trump’s re-election strategy is going to be to say the President rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but he gets things done. His campaign even runs ads that say that. We can just point to his COVID-19 response as evidence that’s not true. But even if it was, what they leave out is that when he sets his mind to do something, it’s often something insane and comes from a place of retribution and punishment for a perceived slight. And also redirects resources from potentially important business to the President’s personal vendettas.
So no surprise the President fires at Twitter for fact-checking him for the first time ever, with an Executive Order threatening to regulate the hell out of social media companies. Oh, and when have you ever heard the President say he’s in favor of more regulation? When it potentially shuts people up from calling him out on his lies, that’s when. And even though legal scholars and media pundits are pooh-poohing the potential real world impact of his move, we don’t think it should be taken lightly.
Twitter this morning flagged another of the President’s Tweets for “glorifying violence” in violation of its rules. And while users can still click through and see Trump’s original Tweet, here’s how it initially appears now on his feed:
Which, of course, is only getting the President more attention in this case.
The President’s Executive Order overall is perplexing, because it would try to define fact-checking of official statements by the President by private citizens (or companies) as censorship.
But at the same time he’s trying to define a government crackdown on voices trying to keep the President honest (so people speaking freely), as a defense of free speech.
So when the President says:
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly”.
He’s talking about defending his speech against any form of criticism, by penalizing companies that would dare fact check him. And it doesn’t take much to extend that one day to people who disagree with or criticize him. (Also, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, corporations and people are the same as applied to free speech in the First Amendment).
In case his point is not clear enough, Trump goes on to very soon make it very clear:
“They’re doing things incorrectly. They have points of view. If we go by that, it’s actually amazing that there was a success in 2016 [he won the Presidency], but we can’t let this continue to happen, it’s very very unfair.”
Now, the President hides his bile behind an argument that online platforms no longer function as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.
And there’s some validity to that. They are all media companies, and they make editorial decisions all the time. Although these platforms still do not function in the same manner as The Washington Post, or Fox News for that matter, not even close. And the owner of your local donut shop who takes down a flyer off their bulletin board for whatever reason is also making an editorial decision, but that doesn’t make them the New York Times.
At the same time, social media giants have far greater reach than the donut shop owner, and even the Washington Post or Fox News, which is really all the President cares about. In fact, Twitter’s reach is exactly as big as the President’s, on Twitter. So that’s huge.
The reason that distinction between “passive bulletin boards” and active “content creators” is so important is that U.S. law protects social media companies against liability for whatever users might post to their sites. And in there lies the teeth of the President’s threat.
But it’s also where the President’s attack starts to be a problem: because it’s really all about being able to sue, sanction or penalize the Twitters of the world if he perceives they’re treating him “unfairly”, which as we all know the President believes is anything that doesn’t “celebrate” everything he does.
So yes, social media companies are too big, at least in part because politicians didn’t understand what they were up to before they got too big. But that’s not why Trump’s doing this even though he says it is; it’s just another score to settle.
“Because it protects private businesses’ right to not have to play host to his lies.”
There’s a simpler solution available: the President could stop using Twitter if it doesn’t like the way it’s presenting his Tweets. That’d save the Justice Department, and the Commerce Department, and the FCC, and the FTC; a whole bunch of departments and agencies mentioned in the Executive Order a whole lot of time and money. And it puts those agencies in a position where they’re not only being asked to redefine and potentially regulate free speech in general, they’re being asked to potentially redefine and regulate free speech specifically as it pertains to the nation’s chief executive.
Trump also used his Executive Order signing event to repeat exactly what Twitter fact checked him on in the first place, saying of mail-in ballots:
“Kids go and raid the mailboxes and sell them to people down the end of the street. You don’t think that happens?”
First of all, no we don’t. Secondly, we wonder what kind of American neighborhood is Trump thinking about where he envisions kids ripping ballots out of mailboxes and then going around selling them on the streets?
No matter how you slice it (and even if you think social media giants like Twitter and Facebook should be more regulated, and
even if you agree with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he says political speech should not be regulated, presumably because everybody knows politicians lie all the time, which we’ve pointed out about a million times is not illegal, and also because Facebook makes a lot of money off of them), Trump’s executive order amounts to no more/no less than attempting to regulate/silence/censor free speech critical of the government. Specifically, him.