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What Even Does Donald Trump's Executive Order Targeting Social Media Mean?

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | May 28, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | May 28, 2020 |


I have been trying to wrap my brain around Donald Trump’s Executive Order regarding social media all day, and I can’t quite figure it out. It’s unworkable, it’s chilling, it’s autocratic, and it’s probably also incredibly counterproductive for Trump himself.

Recall that, two days ago, Twitter labeled two of Donald Trump’s tweets about mail-in balloting and referred Twitter users to accurate information to clear up the misinformation in Trump’s tweet. It was the first time that Twitter has ever acted on Trump’s tweets, and I have a feeling it was less about mail-in ballots and more about the pressure Twitter was facing because of the conspiracy theories Trump was raising about Lori Klausutis.

The result is an apparent executive order that takes aim at social media networks by asking the Commerce Department to file a petition with the FCC to clarify the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Blah blah blah. OK, but what the hell does that mean?

Basically, Section 230 gives social media platforms immunity for all the bullshit that its users say on those platforms, but it also allows them leeway to make good-faith efforts to moderate those platforms.

Trump wants to take that immunity away, because he thinks labeling his mail-in ballot tweet was in bad faith. What would that mean? Basically, that the next time a rando on Twitter calls James Woods a coke addict, James Woods can try and sue not just the Twitter user but Twitter itself (James Woods being a coke addict is just an example, and any resemblance to real-life people is pure coincidence!) . In other words, Twitter and Facebook would be treated like publishers, responsible for all the content on their networks (it would also mean sites like ours would be responsible for NateMan’s comments. You can probably see why that might be an issue!).

Wait, that’s good, right? Doesn’t that just mean that Twitter will have to take Nazis seriously and ban abusive shitheads? Would that just mean that Twitter would have to delete Trump’s tweets and actually ban him?

I mean, maybe? Except that the order would basically give the FCC the power to make the decisions on what is reviewed and who is banned. That’s not good. It’s really not good, because the FCC will get to decide what is “fact” and what is “misinformation,” and right now, the FCC is controlled by Republicans. The Republican-controlled FCC would also determine what constitutes political bias and what does not, meaning that political bias — and good faith or bad faith — would be determined by the controlling political party.

Obviously, there will be legal challenges. Section 230 is settled law, so an executive order — rather than, say, Congressional legislation — is unlikely to withstand those challenges. However, I am sure that the EO (which at this point is still just a draft) will achieve what it set out to achieve, which is to scare the hell out of social networks. All of this will also, of course, give Trump’s base the perception that the social networks are out to get him.

On the other hand, I will say this: Right now, a person or persons at Twitter is in charge of what Tweets gets labeled and what does not. As far as I’m concerned, that person does not label nearly enough Tweets, because obviously a tremendous amount of disinformation is still spread on social media by Russians, Trump, et. al. However, I would also probably be upset if Twitter had a heavy foot with regard to, say, Nancy Pelosi’s statements, especially if accurate information were labeled because the facts support Democrats. Allowing a human to decide what is and is not labeled misinformation is kind of scary. The person who makes that decision right now may be reasonable and apolitical. But the next person may not be, which is exactly why we don’t want the FCC making those decisions. We want an unbias, objective person without any conflicts of interest to make those decisions, but at this point, how many of those people still exist?

Still, despite Trump’s insistence that there is anti-conservative bias on social media, the courts have so far rejected that argument. For Trump, that’s not important. For Trump, what is important is the argument is being had. Where there is an argument, there are sides, and where there are sides, there is division, and Trump is happy anywhere there is division.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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