Earlier this week, Twitter decided to tag President Trump’s tweets as potentially misleading. The president tweeted about the fact that mail-in ballots would lead to voter fraud, without showing any evidence for this claim. Twitter then attached a message to these tweets which linked to a fact-check page that was set up by the company.
Trump wasn’t happy about this at all. He criticized the platform for trying to control the online conversation and accused Twitter of election meddling and censorship. He said – in another tweet – that the social media services would have to be strongly regulated or closed down, basically declaring war.
Facebook Distances Itself from Feud
Of course, the tag became world news and other social media platforms were included in the conversation as well. Facebook’s Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, commented on the situation in an interview with Fox News. He said that he feels Facebook should not be the one to decide what content is accepted on his platform, and what isn’t.
“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg told Fox News. “Private companies … especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Zuckerberg did his best to distance his company from Trump’s feud with Twitter. He told Fox that Facebook and Twitter have different policies on moderating their content. Both companies remove content that violates their terms of service. But Facebook’s approach, Zuckerberg said, has “distinguished us from some of the other tech companies in terms of being stronger on free expression and giving people a voice”.
Facebook also applies labels to misleading posts, but it doesn’t review posts by politicians. Many people agree that this only helps the spread of misinformation, instead of stopping it. People assume that politicians tell the truth, since they are in a position of authority. When their claims aren’t reviewed by the platform, they could really say anything. They could even tell lies which would make the vote swing their way.
Interestingly, Facebook did take down a post from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in March. This post was related to the coronavirus. Facebook has spoken out extensively about the spread of misinformation during the current pandemic, since this could actually hurt people.
Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey also spoke out, and published a clarification on Twitter explaining why they decided to tag Trump’s tweets in the first place. He said that “we’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally”. He referenced Zuckerberg’s comment by saying that “this does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth’. Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show information in dispute so that people can judge for themselves”.
Twitter clearly states that it doesn’t intend to control the conversation in any way. The company simply wants to provide context and extra information when necessary. The company explained that it felt that Trump’s tweet might “confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process”. The president claimed that California’s governor sent out ballots to everyone, when in fact they are only sent to people who are actually registered to vote.
Dorsey continues by saying that this is all part of Twitter’s Civic Integrity Policy. According to those rules, any post that contains misleading information about how to vote, what documents you need to vote, or the date and time of an election are not allowed. Facebook has a similar policy. It also bans content that misrepresents methods for voting or voter registration “regardless of who it’s coming from”.
As stated before, the links to the fact-check page attached to Trump’s tweets were set up by Twitter. The company does its own fact-checking. Facebook, on the other hand, does not. Facebook outsources all its fact checking. This way Facebook avoids coming across as supporting a certain point of view in the conversation. Since Twitter does its own moderation and fact-checking they are at risk of people saying that they’re trying to control the narrative.
On Thursday, the president signed an executive order that targets the legal protection that shields internet companies such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook from liability for user-created content. The law that is targeted (section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) protects internet companies like Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet’s Google from being responsible for the material posted by users and makes sure they can’t be liable for moderation choices.
“The choices Twitter makes when it chooses to edit, blacklist, shadowban are editorial decisions, pure and simple,” Trump said during the signing. “In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform and they become an editor with a viewpoint. And I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook.”
When the law was written, companies were worried that they could be sued if they moderated the content on their websites. So they included a clause which states that they can remove content that is offensive or otherwise objectionable. Which means that they can also remove the president’s tweets.
Many Conservatives in the US feel that they are subject to online censorship on social media platforms. They feel like they can’t post what they want to say, because the platforms have the option to moderate their content. Which they think is in violation of the First Amendment – the right to free speech. But Section 230 is often misunderstood. It does not require sites to be neutral.
Trump’s executive order suggests companies should no longer be protected for actions that are deceptive, discriminatory, non-transparent, or inconsistent with their terms of service. But legal experts say that Trump’s move is a political one, and it won’t change anything for social media companies.
The order “is 95% political theater – rhetoric without legal foundation, and without legal impact,” said Daphne Keller, an expert on internet law at Stanford University. Even if the Federal Communications Commission agrees with Trump’s view on Section 230, it will have no binding legal effect on judges who actually have say over the law.
Twitter Takes it One Step Further
Only hours after Trump signed the executive order, he took to Twitter to send out another Tweet. This time the president spoke out about the unrest in Minneapolis. The protests there started after police brutality. An African-American man named George Floyd died when police officers detained him violently. The protesters are enraged about the man’s death and are taking to the street committing arson, looting and vandalism.
Trumps second Tweet was not just tagged. The president’s words are actually hidden behind a warning which states that the tweet violates Twitter’s rules about glorifying violence. Twitter decided to not completely remove the message. You can still read you can still read the president’s words once you click on the notice. The company “has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible”. Later, the official White House Twitter account repeated the exact same message. This tweet was also hidden behind the notice.
Twitter has also limited the engagement options, so you can’t retweet, like, or reply to the message. You can only retweet the offensive message with a comment. So it seems that the company isn’t really affected by the president’s choice to sign the executive order.
Facebook did not remove the post in question from its platform. At the moment of writing, this post has been liked over 200,000 times and been retweeted almost 50,000 times.