Trump announces clampdown on social media companies

US president denounces the ‘unchecked power’ of tech ‘monopolies’ as he orders review

US president Donald Trump: ‘We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers.’ Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

US president Donald Trump: ‘We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers.’ Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

US President Donald Trump announced a major clampdown on social media companies on Thursday as he ordered a review of a law that gives companies like Twitter and Facebook legal protection for content posted on their platforms.

In a significant escalation of his battle with Twitter, Mr Trump signed an executive order calling for new regulations under Section 230 – a key provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which exempts social media companies from liability for content published on their platforms.

“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” he said, as he denounced the “unchecked power” of tech “monopolies”.

“The choices that Twitter makes when it chooses to suppress, edit, blacklist, shadow-ban are editorial decisions, pure and simple,” he said. “In those moments Twitter ceases to become a neutral public platform and becomes an editor with a viewpoint,” adding that his comments also applied to Google and Facebook.

He said censorship and bias are “a threat to freedom itself”, stating that social media companies have “vastly more power and more reach” than any phone company, newspaper or traditional forms of communication.

“Imagine if your phone company silenced or edited your conversations. Social media companies have vastly more power and more reach than any phone company in the United States, ” he said.

‘Bullied’

He continued: “I will not allow the American people to be bullied by these giant corporations . . . We’re fed up with it. It’s unfair,” adding that there was significant support from Democrats for greater regulation of tech companies.

Asked by a reporter why he did not delete his own Twitter account given his views of Twitter, Mr Trump replied: “If you weren’t fake, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

“I’m able to refute fake news, so that’s very important,” he said, noting that his social media posts reach 160 million people, much more than traditional media.

He was also asked if he had the authority to shut down social media platforms like Twitter. “If it was able to be legally shut down, I’d do it,” he said.

Mr Trump’s efforts to rein in social media giants follows Twitter’s move this week to add fact-check labels to two of the president’s tweets related to postal voting in which he claimed that mail-in ballots lead to election fraud.

The unprecedented move by the company provoked fury in the US president, who accused Twitter of interfering in November’s presidential election. However, the social-media giant has not intervened on a series of tweets posted by the president suggesting that an MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was involved in the death of a former employee in 2001, despite the widower of the deceased woman asking Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to do so.

Absentee voting

Speaking as he signed the order on Thursday, Mr Trump defended his claim that absentee voting leads to fraud. “You don’t think they rip them out of mailboxes?” he said about postal votes that are sent to constituents.

The issue of postal voting has taken on renewed relevance this year as many states begin to prepare for widespread absentee voting in November’s presidential election due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Trump’s executive order, signed on Thursday, is likely to face legal challenges.

Attorney general William Barr said while the order would not repeal Section 230, the original meaning of the provision had been lost since the law was created, in 1996.

The tension between Mr Trump and Twitter poses a unique challenge to the social media company founded by Jack Dorsey. The US president is the company’s most famous user, regularly deploying his Twitter account to communicate with his 80 million-plus followers.

But the company has long faced calls to intervene when Mr Trump tweets erroneous information, as it has done with figures such as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

While conservatives in Congress have argued that Twitter exhibits a liberal bias, Democrats have also called for greater regulation of internet giants. On Thursday, the House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said it was an “outrageous situation” that Twitter had fact-checked the president’s tweets on postal voting but had not acted on his tweets concerning the death of Lori Klausutis, the former aide to Mr Scarborough.

“Facebook, all of them, they’re all about making money,” she said. “Their business model is to make money at the expense of the truth and the facts.”