Donald Trump’s fight to change the laws governing social media channels


Donald Trump is well known for speaking his mind, especially on social media channels, however, a recent spat between himself and Twitter has escalated, resulting in the President attempting to repeal one of the pillars of U.S. law protecting social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. 

What's happened?

In June 2019, Twitter introduced a policy whereby tweets that violate their rules and would ordinarily be removed, may remain available to the public subject to a cover message explaining why the tweet is still available. This policy only applies to government representatives that are verified users and have over 100,000 followers.  In Twitter's own words, the move to keep these tweets visible but add a message to them was an attempt to serve the public conversation by "providing a place where people can openly and publicly respond to their leaders and hold them accountable". 

Over recent months, US President Donald Trump has been at the receiving end of this new policy, which has erupted into a very public feud and is now driving a retaliation from the White House. In May 2020, Trump sent out a tweet claiming that “Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”; Twitter deemed this tweet to be misleading and subsequently added a fact-check link to show that the information he was speaking about may not be accurate. More recently, Trump posted a tweet in reference to the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis, which included a controversial quote from a white Miami police chief during the civil rights movement, who stated: “when looting starts, shooting starts”. Twitter responded by hiding Trump's tweet behind a message explaining that it violated their rules regarding 'glorifying violence', although users could still continue to view the tweet if they wanted to.

Conversely, Facebook has not taken any action against these same posts on their platform, with Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) being quoted in saying he didn’t think the company should be an “arbiter of truth”; a comment that angered many Facebook employees, causing some to quit and over 5,500 to complain about how he dealt with the situation.

More recently, Donald Trump Jr has had his Twitter account suspended for twelve hours after sharing false information around the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine, a type of malaria drug, to prevent contracting coronavirus. Twitter said the post goes against their Covid-19 policy to stop the spread of misinformation around the topic, which is why the suspension was put in place.

How is Trump responding?

In response to this move by Twitter, Trump has put forward an executive order to try and change some of the fundamental laws governing social media companies, namely, Section 230 - a piece of legislation in the Communications Decency Act that prevents social media companies being held accountable for the content users post, subject to a few exceptions (e.g. illegal use or breach of intellectual property). The official wording says:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”.

The legislation was created in response to two separate court cases in the 1990s that dealt with defamatory comments on websites. In one case, the court ruled in favour of the company on whose website the comment was made on since they were only seen to host the content and not create, but in the other case, the ruling went against the company hosting the website since they disclosed that they did monitor posts. Section 230 allows the content that users post to places such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter (even Amazon reviews) to be publically visible immediately, which could all change if Section 230 is revoked.

President Trump wants these companies to moderate content more as he feels they are unfairly biased against conservative messages. His order requests that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates social media sites more stringently; however, the FTC does not yet seem keen on making these changes to current legislation. It is unlikely anything is to come of this order, but should these changes come into play, Trump's own tweets could be censored too.

What are the implications of repealing Section 230?

If Section 230 was repealed, it would mean that all content uploaded to websites would need to be reviewed before being made public. This would mean you could send out a tweet, but it might take a couple of days to appear as it would have to be checked first. This, of course, has enormous implications for the way we currently share content and news globally, but it also raises questions around the ethics of how information would be controlled and analysed too.

To put this into perspective, YouTube has around 100 hours of video uploaded every minute of the day, all of which would be required to be vetted before going online for public view. In reality, many of services would stop hosting user-generated content as it wouldn’t be financially viable to change their business model in this way. It could also mean review websites such as Yelp or Trip Advisor could potentially be sued if a defamatory review was left on a business on their websites, which could mean these websites wouldn't exist anymore or have to change drastically.

If the law was changed, it could alter the internet as we currently know it. It is likely social media wouldn’t exist in the same capacity it does now, and freedom to post your own opinions on the internet could become limited. Even though this issue relates to US law, the ramifications would affect users around the world, not just in the US as where the social media companies are based.

For more information on Twitter's criteria and how they determine whether a post is in breach of their rules, please click here.

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