Can Social Media Survive 2020?

Trump’s Executive Order puts the future of social media platforms in doubt

It’s been a terrible, awful, heartbreaking six months. The pandemic ripped through humanity, the economy, and our psyches. And let’s not forget COVID-19 landed in an already deeply divided country, one that, when self-isolating, tends to duke it out on social media.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office before signing an executive order related to regulating social media on May 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. Doug Mills-Pool / Getty Images

Look at our Twitter President, a man who built his reputation on TV and Twitter and now uses the latter platform as a bullhorn, a policy pulpit, and a cudgel against his enemies. He uses Facebook, too, but mostly as his 24-hour shopping channel.

Now, though, he’s slamming one leg of his self-promotion table with a hammer, angry that Twitter, perhaps unwisely, chose to publicly fact check a pair of his tweets regarding the upcoming election.

On Thursday, Trump unveiled an unprecedented Executive Order calling for, among other things, a rending of a 20-plus-year-old piece of law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that protects social media and other online platforms from being treated as publishers of information posted on their platform and from being held liable for the information private citizens post on them. In other words, if someone posts an ad for illicit drugs on Facebook, it’s the drug dealer you hold accountable, not Facebook. And if someone posts pornography on YouTube, it’s the pornographer you charge (or sue), not YouTube. 

It also gives platforms the right to block access to “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” material regardless of if it’s protected by the Constitution. Put simply, Section 230 is a large blanket that lets online entities run their platforms as they see fit.

A Big Change

The Executive Order seeks to strip away that liability shield from social media companies, not for posting the illicit content, but for “online censorship.” The order places heavy emphasis on political discourse.

  • It wants the FTC to take a close look at 1,600 complaints of “Tech Bias” that it collected a year ago.
  • The White House wants to look at how, in its view, users are being scrutinized based on who they interact with and who they follow on the platforms.
  • It wants to look at the partners these companies are using to review content for “bias.”
  • It wants to examine “algorithms to suppress content or users based on indications of political alignment or viewpoint.”

One way to interpret all this is that Trump wants all online political activity to be shielded from interference of any kind.

What are the Rules?

The White House will have some support outside the President’s base for these actions. Many people argue that Facebook and Twitter are publishers and should be responsible for the violent and inflammatory content people post on the platform.

Newspapers, magazines and their associated web sites have nothing like a Section 230, beyond free speech protections. 

In place of strict publishing guidelines, social media platforms rely on users following their Terms of Service (TOS) policies, which give them broad authority over what they deem objectionable and can remove from the site. Nipples, for instance, are verboten on Instagram. Hate speech and bullying is a no-no on Twitter.

Fake news, misleading claims and other false information have long been a problem on the platforms and, after the 2016 elections, Facebook and Twitter have tried locking down. In the time of COVID-19, the need for facts and not dangerous fiction is even more dire. All platforms are now much more proactive about suppressing, tagging and removing misleading content. To do so, however, you need public-facing policies.

Twitter’s Rules

Which brings us to Twitter’s new Civic Integrity Policy that speaks specifically to anyone trying to manipulate, mislead, or suppress participation in civic processes like an election. Trump’s tweet about the contested danger of widespread fraud from mail-in voting fell under that rubric.

However, Trump’s tweets essentially accusing a television broadcaster of murder, those including name calling, and several instances of outright bullying, all of which seem to violate Twitter’s TOS, have not gotten him tossed off the platform.

Honestly, I get Twitter’s conundrum. The man is the President of the United States. How do you kick him off? Yes, the president should hold himself to a higher standard, but what choice has Twitter had but to give the leader of the free world who might, on occasion, say something valuable at a national level, some leeway?

The Bits

The President’s comments prior to signing the Executive Order were a litany of complaints, accusations, and threats.

Trump wants the FTC to look at “deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce,” but doesn’t explain what practices he’s talking about. Perhaps he means the Russian trolls who’ve spent years buying ads on Facebook and filling Twitter with bots to sway voter opinions (they’ve succeeded at least once).

These companies, Trump argued, have “had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences."

Facebook and Twitter have done a poor job of managing the discourse on their platforms. An understandable problem when you consider there are billions of users on Facebook and hundreds of millions of users on Twitter. No level of manpower or automation can possibly keep track of it all.

One way to interpret all this is that Trump wants all online political activity to be shielded from interference of any kind.

However, I’d argue it’s not the social media companies that have the power to shape conversations. It’s been those with a keen enough understanding of how these systems work who’ve had the most success. Heck, Trump’s own reelection campaign is particularly expert and running highly effective Facebook ads (it spends millions) that surely have some effect on how people perceive him and his opponent Joe Biden.

Trump’s big argument, though, is one we’ve heard for the last few years, particularly from Republican congress people and some rightwing activist on Twitter: conservative voices are being blocked or “shadow banned,” meaning Twitter actively hides their tweets from public view. This charge has never held up.

Even though social media is a relatively new phenomenon, appearing late in George W. Bush’s presidency, Trump said people have been asking presidents to do all of this for a long time. He also claimed, without irony, that these companies are bullying the American people.

Trump repeatedly called the social media companies’ monopolies, even though there are clearly other options. On the other hand, Facebook’s habit of buying up competitors does move it ever closer to monopoly status and a number of former presidential candidates have called for its breakup.

Facing the Problem

Speaking of Facebook, which Trump did not name specifically in his comments, but which the executive order calls out by name (along with Instagram and YouTube), Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, said on Thursday, perhaps as a “Don’t look at us” signal, that Facebook doesn’t want to be the arbiter of facts. It prefers to operate like the landlord of an empty building with tenants that fill it with whatever they want. If someone builds an atom bomb inside its walls, that’s neither Facebook’s concern nor problem.

Still, Zuckerberg must be chilled by Trump’s Executive Order, which, if Section 230 protections evaporate, may make it harder for Facebook to maintain a laissez-faire attitude toward platform content and activities. As he told Fox News, “A government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex there."

I’m not saying Facebook doesn’t have rules. It does and Zuckerberg said that there are situations where if someone violates them, the content (or maybe user) must be removed. Trump's apparent murder accusations do not, as far as Zuckerberg was concerned, pass that litmus test.

Zuckerberg is concerned about the future of the Internet, though not the one in the U.S. He told Fox News that he worries about how some countries struggling to build their own rules for the internet look longingly at China’s model, which gives the government unfettered access to private technology and users’ activities. He hopes that the future internet looks more like the Western model, more like a democracy.

How, though, will that be possible with an Executive Order that more or less threatens any platform that touches political activity in any way?

I don’t know what the answer is, but we are turning a corner here. If the executive order goes into effect unchallenged—unlikely as even Trump is anticipating a lawsuit—social media platforms and virtually any internet services enter uncharted territory where any action taken on their platform or service could lead to a lawsuit against them.

What is clear is that, at least in Twitter's case, the gloves are off. As I wrote this, Twitter flagged another Trump tweet, claiming that it glorified violence. Trump quickly followed with another promise to regulate the platform.

It’s going to be a very long summer for us, the President, and these platforms.