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Trump on the Offensive Against Manipulated Social Media

May 29, 2020 (EIRNS)—President Donald Trump—whose 2016 election relied on his ability to reach people directly through social media channels rather than large media outlets—moved to rein in the increasing policing of social media by an army of clearly biased “fact-checkers.”

His Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, signed on May 28, focuses on revisiting section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. In 230(c)(1), the act provides protection to online content providers: “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.” This applies to sites such as Twitter, which are a forum for tweets written by its users rather than Twitter itself, and to comments left by readers of a blog, when those comments are not directly written by the blogger.

Trump’s Executive Order points to 230(c)(2), which describes the specific ways that an “interactive computer service” can act “in good faith” to remove or make unavailable content that “the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” Weighing in on political disagreements or restricting access to posts that do not fall under the categories would therefore be considered a form of editorializing, making that platform itself the speaker, rather than an indifferent transmitter of the speech of others.

A recent example is the “fact check” added to Trump’s May 26 tweet about the potential for the widespread use of mail-in ballots to be “substantially fraudulent.”

Twitter added to Trump’s tweet its own message: “On Tuesday, President Trump made a series of claims about potential voter fraud after California Governor Gavin Newsom announced an effort to expand mail-in voting in California during the COVID-19 pandemic. These claims are unsubstantiated, according to CNN, Washington Post, and others. Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.”

The Executive Order cites a 2017 Supreme Court ruling which held that social media sites, as the modern public square, “can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard.” It also makes reference to the Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robbins case of 1980, which held that political activity could be conducted in publicly accessible areas of private shopping centers.

Unfortunately, and in keeping with the blood-curdling speech he made Friday on China, the Executive Order takes aim at U.S. online platforms “profiting from and promoting the aggression and disinformation spread by foreign governments like China.” At the press conference on the signing of the Order, he gave the example of tweets from Chinese government officials claiming that the U.S. was the origin of SARS-CoV-2, which were not fact-checked until the White House made a stink about it.

Overall, Section 230 of the CDA is an important tool for maintaining internet freedom. Legislation to recognize the large social media platforms as something akin to utilities would be the best way to move forward to set clear standards for equality of access and freedom to express different views. This EO addresses a difficult issue that requires a legislative solution.

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