President Trump’s New Executive Order Could Alter the Future of Social Media
For many years, social media platforms have functioned as a way for people all over the world to connect and interact with one another. Even people thousands of miles apart can interact. Users are able to engage with their favorite brands and follow their favorite celebrities. These platforms allow users to voice their own opinions when they see fit. They are a virtual town square of discussion, enabling free speech. Users can share their thoughts on their favorite sports team, recently released music and movies, or voice their political opinions. The latter has managed to garner much attention in recent years.
Social media has played an integral part in recent elections, especially in the 2016 Presidential election. Both candidates managed to use these platforms to further their campaigns, and social media played a large role in President Trump’s eventual election.
Social media gives users a chance to voice their opinions freely among themselves while ensuring that the companies behind these platforms are not held liable for the things users say. Legislation has been in place for over two decades that grant internet companies immunity. However, President Trump recently signed an executive order that aims to weaken social media companies and limit their legal protections.
What is This Executive Order?
President Trump’s decision to sign this new executive order in late May 2020 came off the back of social media platform Twitter fact-checking a pair of President Trump’s tweets, which claimed mail-in ballots were fraudulent when no evidence suggests so. While Twitter did not hide or suppress these tweets, they did include a disclaimer linking to additional information. Regardless, the President was quick to respond.
On May 28, President Trump signed an executive order to limit the legal protections social media companies have benefited from. Prior to signing this order, Trump stated that this decision was to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.” In his eyes, he believes that Twitter, among other social media platforms, is stifling free speech, particularly the voices of conservatives.
“A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States,” he claimed. “They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.”
With this order, the White House hopes to create new regulations that social media companies like Twitter and Facebook must follow. The White House has advised federal agencies to discontinue advertising on platforms they deem to discriminate politically. They also plan on asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to offer new, clearer interpretations of the Communications Decency Act, the legislation that provides internet platforms with broad legal immunity over how they decide to regulate or not the content users post on their sites.
Communications Decency Act
As we have already stated, the Communication Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, protects internet platforms from being held liable for the things users say on these platforms. Specifically, it is Section 230 that protects internet companies. The law shields these companies from being sued over content appearing on their site that was posted by users. Additionally, it allows them to moderate content. If a post is to be removed, that is up to the decision of the platform operating on “good faith.”
For legal purposes, internet platforms were qualified as “distributors” instead of “publishers.” When a site imposed some form of content moderation, it may have been held to publisher liability. This led to users being able to freely post what they wanted without any regulations or standards regarding obscenity, racism, and libel. However, in 2018, Congress amended Section 230, placing legal responsibility on websites for promoting prostitution or victims of sex trafficking.
Section 230 addressed this and allowed companies to keep their immunity while being able to moderate content on “good faith.” However, President Trump believes social media platforms have not done so.
When Twitter fact-checked President Trump, he accused the social media platform of censoring free speech. He threatened to use the power of the federal government to reduce this power or shut it down entirely. This executive order argued that if social media platforms continued to suppress certain voices, they should lose their legal immunity. This would open the doors to a host of lawsuits over defamatory content.
However, many feel that this order will prove to be far from beneficial. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said, “By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”
Google spokeswoman Riva Sciuto believes that this “would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.” Many companies believe that this would lead to a wave of lawsuits due to users’ comments, which the costs of defending these lawsuits would leave companies financially unstable.
Many believe that this order my hurt freedom of speech instead of helping it. Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, believes that “imposing a flawed interpretation of Section 230” would have negative benefits. “Section 230 incentivizes platforms to host all sorts of content without fear of being held liable for it. It enables speech, not censorship,” Ruane states.
Kate Klonick, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law in New York said, “It flies in the face of 25 years of judicial precedent, that has been federal precedent in almost every circuit court.” Essentially, this order would have major ramifications.
While President Trump has signed this executive order, Congress is the only one who can rescind the immunity Section 230 grants social media platforms. Whether this order makes an impact on the internet community and social media platforms remains to be seen. As always, Tech Critic remains committed to staying up to date on all that happens within the digital realm so that we are better suited to aid our customers.