By Chand Bellur
May 28, 2020 at 1:47 p.m. PT
- Twitter responded to outrage over offensive Trump tweets by posting links to facts on his messages.
- Enraged, Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States, threatened to issue an executive order holding social media platforms responsible for perceived political bias.
- Social media companies like Twitter rely on Donald Trump’s presence for revenues, making them reticent to delete tweets or ban his account.
- Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook regularly delete offensive posts and offending accounts, indicating a double standard for celebrity accounts.
- Donald Trump signed the executive order addressing alleged political bias in social media.
- Trump continues using Twitter, issuing a barrage of tweets, including threats about shutting down the platform he uses for communication.
Trump Threatens to Reign in Social Media with Executive Order
Over the past weeks, a public feud between Donald Trump and Twitter has emerged. As November nears, Trump continues to ratchet up his smear tactics, posting falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
Recently, the President dredged up an old, debunked conspiracy theory that Joe Scarborough killed one of his staffers when he was a U.S. Representative. The husband of the late staffer, Dr. Timothy Klausutis, asked Twitter to remove the messages, pointing out that they routinely deleted objectionable messages and offending accounts. Twitter refused to do so, claiming that they don’t have the features and policies in place to address Trump’s messages.
Unlike the garden variety troll, Donald Trump is a sacred cow. His 80 million followers make up much of Twitter’s user base, traffic, and revenues. Fearing that Trump would rebuke Twitter over message deletions, the company responded feebly, adding fact-check links to his posts.
This weak move still offended Trump. He
has stopped tweeting and now has all of social media in the crossfire. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s reputation and leadership abilities have taken a massive hit. His response was a failure, neither placating Twitter users nor satisfying Donald Trump. In one fell swoop, Dorsey killed the golden goose (Trump) and threw all of social media under the bus.
Trump is on the verge of signing an executive order that would throw a monkey wrench in Silicon Valley’s gears. The order aims to rescind section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media corporations from lawsuits from user content and moderation. This fairly open legal clause allows social media companies free reign to ignore or censor offensive content. Attorney General William Barr has also recently challenged section 230.
The Dubious Legality of Trump’s Executive Order
Critics have already pointed out that Trump’s executive order, which he has yet to sign, will be tied up in courts. Political bias is at the heart of the matter. Trump claims that social media corporations play favorites, de facto censoring right-wing communications with links to facts.
Trump’s order may pave the way for the FCC to regulate online communications. This is a massive shot across Silicon Valley’s bow. These are the largest corporations on the planet, with legal defense teams capable of obliterating the federal judiciary, or at the very least, tying this matter up in court for years. Indeed, the legal prowess of the Silicon Valley led to the creation of section 230 in the first place, albeit a grassroots effort. Now, the tech economy has a massive war chest that can take on virtually any legal obstacle.
The course of events has irreparably harmed Twitter. Their cowardly action backfired. It was enough “censorship” to offend Trump, yet not enough to appease concerned users. Twitter’s stock has taken a beating over the incident.
Even if Trump is just posturing, a lack of participation on the platform could dramatically harm Twitter. The President has over 80 million Twitter followers and earns massive revenues for the company. Just barely turning a profit in 2019, the social media platform could shed millions of users based on this incident. For now, Trump’s pathological need for attention inhibits any effort to abstain from tweeting. It’s entirely possible he may respond to Zuckerberg’s overture and move communications to Instagram, where he already has an account and following.
Social Media Double Standard
The 700 lbs gorilla in the room is that social media companies regularly censor users for much less offensive content. Timothy Klausutis mentioned this in his passionate appeal to Twitter. Any other user would have their messages and account deleted. Trump earns revenues for Twitter, so they refuse to treat him like any other Twitter user.
Although section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects social media from frivolous lawsuits, it has also engendered biased content moderation. Every day, messages and users face deletion for innocuous infractions. Sacred, profitable cows like Donald Trump build their base on trash-talking, which would get an average user banned.
While section 230 provides essential protection for Silicon Valley corporations, it also allows them to shape reality. Social media aided and abetted Trump’s rise to power. It favors right-wing firebrands who attract users, while silencing those sickened by the falsehoods and vitriol. If you have enough Twitter followers, you can get away with anything.
Twitter created these monsters — both Trump and his upcoming executive order. It’s the classic scorpion and frog dilemma. Donald Trump hitched a ride on Twitter’s back and stung Dorsey once he reached the river bank.
The real shame of this incident is the collateral damage. Other, more responsible, social media companies are now under attack. Even Mark Zuckerberg has called out Dorsey’s actions as weak, ineffective and damaging to social media. True to his nature, however, Zuckerberg pandered to Trump, claiming corporations should not be the “arbiter of truth”. Facebook, however, has similar policies of deleting users and their objectionable content. They also post fact-checking information. If anything, it came across as an appeal to Trump, which he has clearly embraced. It’s possible that he may use Instagram, a Facebook product, instead of Twitter. There’s no solidarity among Silicon Valley elites, as they throw one another under the bus to appease a megalomaniac for the sake of profit.
Perhaps the Twitter board needs to consider replacing Dorsey. In either event, his policies and ideas created the monster who now plans to destroy them. Twitter has been a boon for right-wing conspiracy theorists and Donald Trump. It’s their largest breeding ground. They don’t need to hide in some dark corner of the Internet. They own it!
Short term profitability took a back seat to responsible business practices, which could see the demise of Dorsey, Twitter, and perhaps other social media platforms.