A dangerous game

By William Rinehart Christopher Koopman

Published:

President Trump is, by all accounts, the first social media president. His use of these platforms allowed him to side-step political insiders, win the GOP nomination, and find his way into the oval office. The megaphone that sites like Facebook and Twitter have provided the president is unprecedented, and announcements traditionally made from rose gardens and behind the Resolute desk are now made in tweetstorms.

That is why the latest spat with social media is quickly becoming a dangerous game for President Trump. In an effort to punish Twitter for fact-checking him, he signed an executive order that could mean more of his content around the Internet is taken down in the future. It may have scored political points, but it comes at the expense of a bright spot of the U.S. economy, which would be exposed to greater liability.

This all began with a series of tweets from the president suggesting foul play in the death of Lori Klausutis, who died of an undiagnosed heart condition almost 20 years ago while working for then-Representative Joe Scarborough. On Tuesday, an impassioned letter from her widower was published in the New York Times, imploring Twitter to take down the tweets. While the company did not remove these posts, they did flag other tweets from Trump about the mail-in ballots as they could confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process. In response, Trump claimed he was being censored. Hours later, the Executive Order began to circulate.

The order takes aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law has been heralded as the foundation for today’s modern Internet. Two major provisions are under fire, the first shields companies like Twitter and Facebook from liability over defamation, libel, or legal challenges if they take content down. The second also limits liability for content that is left up. But content that is taken down must be done in good faith.

This subsection, like the rest of Section 230, helps the Internet to flourish. Facebook, Google, and Twitter know that if they take off spam or harassing content from their networks, they won’t be second-guessed by courts. Spam filters, parental blocking software, and every other service that curates Internet content would be fair game for lawsuits as well if Section 230 changes. While the president is hoping to corner the largest social media sites, shifting liability rules would undermine a lot of the tools we have come to enjoy in today’s Internet.

Rather than defanging social media companies, changing or removing Section 230’s liability protections would encourage more aggressive censorship. It will make these companies more fearful of lawsuits and expand their content moderation practices, leading to a limiting of what is said on the Internet. If Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg find themselves liable for the things President Trump says, they have no other choice than to clamp down on content.

Lastly, the order calls on the FTC to investigate social media companies to determine if their content moderation practices run afoul of their terms of service (TOS) and encourages state attorneys general to also launch their own investigation. But if Twitter were to be more stringent and follow its own terms of service, then the president would face more consistent rebukes, according to insiders.

People from both sides of the aisle despise content moderation decisions that social media platforms make. Even Presidential candidate Joe Biden has also been critical of the law, but for different reasons. If the President, as he says, is committed “to free and open debate on the Internet,” then there is only one direction: leave the law as it stands.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.