President Trump's inflammatory Twitter posts and recent executive order that could transform social media as we know it have created a maelstrom and ramped up tensions during an already explosive time in U.S. history.
The President is an avid Twitter user, a relatively new phenomenon in politics and one that has enabled him to circumvent traditional media outlets -- and the vetting and scrutiny they would potentially expose his statements to. Consequently, he has largely been given free reign to post whatever he likes on social media until recently.
Last week, Twitter crossed into uncharted territory when it appended a warning to Trump's tweet regarding the protests and looting following the police murder of George Floyd. Trump referred to the protesters as "THUGS," a term that is arguably racially loaded. He then tweeted the now infamous statement "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."
Twitter acted swiftly, appending a warning to his original tweet indicating it had violated the company's rules against glorifying violence. The platform had also appended a fact-check to an earlier Trump tweet hinting that voting by mail in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to widespread fraud.
Within days, Trump had signed an executive order calling on federal regulators to amend a portion of the law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law protects social media companies from being held liable for the content posted by users on their platforms, while also giving them the power to remove content deemed abusive or offensive.
The law has enabled everything from hate speech to terrorist ramblings to propaganda designed to influence elections to thrive on social media platforms. Trump's executive order would essentially force those platforms to take a more active role in monitoring and removing content -- a move that could potentially silence loud and inflammatory voices like Trump's.
The Center for Democracy and Technology filed a lawsuit against the President this week, alleging his executive order threatens to "curtail and chill constitutionally protected speech" during the presidential election. The group, which is supported by Facebook, Google and Twitter, is the first to challenge Trump's order.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been dealing with his own set of protests after refusing to take action on posts like Trump's, which some claim could be linked to inciting and promoting violence. Zuckerberg has repeatedly claimed it is not Facebook's responsibility to police political speech.
That stance led hundreds of Facebook employees to stage a virtual walkout this week, taking the day off to support George Floyd protesters. Those participating added an automated response to emails indicating they were in disagreement with Facebook's positions on Trump's inflammatory posts.
Apparently Facebook's position does not apply to state-backed media outlets, as the company today announced it would add labels to the Facebook pages of Chinese and Russian state-controlled media outlets. The company will now append labels to Sputnik, Xinhua News, People's Daily and other media outlets indicating they are run by the state.
Independently run government-funded publishers, like the BBC, will not be included in the labeling. Facebook also plans to label all ads on their platform from state-controlled media organizations, as well as non-paid posts viewed in the U.S. from the outlets' Facebook pages. The company plans to stop state-controlled media organizations from Russia, China and elsewhere from buying ads in the U.S. later this summer, in advance of the November election.
The inconsistent approach to domestic and international "state-sponsored communications" is sure to stir even more controversy during one of the most tumultuous times in recent U.S. history. Trump's executive order raises broad questions about the role and scope of social media in general, as well as social media corporations' powers to limit, label and censor some information at will.
Changes to the Communications Decency Act, or a successful challenge to Trump's executive order, will have far-reaching ramifications surrounding the sharing of information and the role of social as well as traditional media. That the issue is being raised during a presidential political cycle, a global pandemic and a nation in turmoil over the unjust murder of a black man at the hands of white police officers is sure to have historical consequences.
Edited by Maurice Nagle