The feud between the Trump Administration and Silicon Valley predates the election that put the president into office. Pundits across ideological lines agree that social media played a huge part in that election. Now, after Twitter made a stunning move to “censor” something President Trump published on the platform, the White House has taken concrete steps against the industry.
Or did it?
In an unprecedented move, an executive order has been levied against social media companies. But what does it actually mean for Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms? Can it be defended legally, and is it going to have consequences for those who use it?
The Executive Order: Already Challenged
A tech group is already challenging the executive order signed late in May. In brief, the executive order makes social media platforms responsible for the activities of its users. In the past, websites have largely been shielded from the majority of consequences for its users actions. While they could be responsible for hosting illegal content (such as content about illicit drugs), they couldn’t be responsible for the free speech of users on the platform itself.
But this executive order makes it possible for these social media platforms to be held legally accountable. Its a move that is considered to be unconstitutional by some, but it’s also not entirely out of left field.
Regulating Social Media: A Question of Free Speech
Scientists have repeatedly found that social media is reducing the quality of lives for many people. But there’s never been an answer regarding how to regulate it, just the knowledge that it does have to be regulated in some fashion. The executive order does take a step towards regulating these platforms.
But there’s problems with its implementation.
The administration targeted Twitter foremost because Twitter had “fact-checked” a tweet by the president. By making Twitter accountable for things posted by the president, the executive order actually makes it more likely that Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms will find it legally prudent to ban inflammatory members altogether. And that includes politicians.
After the executive order, the president himself tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which Twitter hid citing that it was a call to violence. It can be argued that this change was necessary because of the executive order itself.
Facebook and Twitter Mostly Silent
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the other big platforms appear to be considering how seriously they need to take the executive order. Meanwhile, tech companies are already appealing it. There haven’t been any widespread changes other than the fact that Facebook and Twitter do seem to be taking additional action to hide or fact-check posts that are illegal or against their terms of service. This is being decried as censorship during a tumultuous time.
Whether Facebook, Twitter, and other social media venues need to radically change is going to depend on whether the executive order is upheld. The executive order is broad, and Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only ones impacted. YouTube comment threads, Reddit posts, and essentially anywhere that people can post opinions and comments could become a legal target, with websites newly responsible for the opinions and activities of their users.
Long-term, it’s unlikely that the executive order is going to go unchallenged. Not only is it incredibly broad, but it’s considered to be unconstitutional, and to fly in the face of free speech. For now, it may be doing what it was intended to do: Making it so that companies are more likely to flag and fact-check posts, and creating new automated systems and moderation systems that can more easily identify issues with problematic texts.