In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and coast to coast protests and civil unrest in response to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, President Trump has ignited a new fight, posing a threat to freedom of speech.
When Trump’s May 26 tweets falsely labeled mail-in ballots as “fraudulent” and predicted that “mailboxes will be robbed,” among other things, Twitter flagged the tweets with a note to “get the facts about mail-in ballots,” a link that led to fact checks and news stories by media organizations. Three days later, the president tweeted on the protests and social unrest in Minneapolis using the phrase, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which repeated a threat made against black neighborhoods by Miami’s police chief in 1967 during the civil rights era. In response, Twitter flagged the tweet for violating the platform’s rules against posts “glorifying violence.”
Angered, the president issued an executive order attempting to punish Twitter and other social media companies, by changing the interpretation of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that currently protects online platforms from liability for content they host that is posted by others. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jessica González, co-CEO of the media democracy group Free Press, who assesses the danger posed by Trump’s executive order to free speech and an open Internet.
JESSICA GONZALEZ: This is plainly retaliation for Twitter holding the president accountable for lying and stoking violence. Something he’s done on Twitter since before he even became president. Remember this is the same person who launched his campaign attacking my community, the Mexican-American community. And so this has long been a platform where the president has spread bigotry, disinformation and divisiveness. He’s now using it to seed misinformation about elections and Twitter for the first time was brave enough — long overdue — but brave, nonetheless, to stand up to the president to not allow him to use the platform to spread lies. To not allow him to weaponize the platform to call for violence against black protesters. That was the right thing to do on Twitter’s part. And the response here while as a legal matter, it’s weak, as a political matter, it’s incredibly profound. This is retaliation. This is a temper tantrum from the president because he didn’t get his way because he wasn’t allowed to lie to his followers and stoke violence against black people, plain and simple. That’s what it is.
SCOTT HARRIS: Tell us a bit about the specifics of the executive order here. President Trump in his executive order discussed changing the definition of regulations in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. There were also changes to the White House Office [of] Digital Strategy to reactivate a tool to track online censorship and refer complaints to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on here and if the president indeed has the power to make these changes.
JESSICA GONZALEZ: So in short, no, he does not. But it doesn’t mean that it that doesn’t absolve us from a headache in trying to undo the mess that he’s created here. And what he’s trying to do here is chip away at Section 230 that gives social media companies some leeway — not to host unlawful activity — that would still not be permissible under Section 230. But it allows them to moderate content on their site as they see fit as private companies as notably, not government actors. They have the right, in my opinion, the responsibility to moderate content on their site — good for democracy. And it’s good to ensure that the voices of folks who’ve been historically oppressed in this country and in others are able to speak out on social media platforms. So what he’s trying to do through a series of legal gymnastics is to unwind that liability shield and to act as a conservative bias police. Essentially this is really just a bully pulpit move on the part of the president to scare social media companies into not holding him accountable. He points to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It sets up an attorney general task force to investigate the platforms for unfair and deceptive practices and asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate unfair and deceptive practices with regards to their terms of service. And it’s all pretty weak because the president really doesn’t have the authority to do this.
SCOTT HARRIS: One of the concerns of many, including your group is that these actions, whether upheld legally will have the effect of chilling free speech, that a lot of these companies out there and other actors in media will try to do everything they can not to attract retaliation from the president, who after all, holds a lot of power. What can be done now to push back against what many people are concerned about is an act of censorship coming from the White House?
JESSICA GONZALEZ: That’s right. Well, we have a number of actions and organizing that we’re doing all digitally, of course, in the age of COVID-19 at freepress.net. We are getting organized and organizing the voices of the people to speak directly to the social media companies, to hold them accountable, to encourage them to stick up to the authoritarianism out of the White House. But also to really educate folks about the difference between what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about with this executive order is the government trying to shut down speech. It’s very different from what we are asking the social media companies to do. Social media companies are not government actors. We’re asking them to hold power accountable. We’re asking them to eradicate violent white supremacy off their platforms. We’re asking them to actually take a role in ensuring that they are not part of the spread of dangerous disinformation about COVID that’s literally killing people and not part of the spread of election misinformation that sullies our right to vote. So those that’s an important distinction between what the president’s doing, which is, you know, a violation of our free speech rights – certainly has the ability to chill – and what the responsibilities of these private tech companies are.
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