President Trump is engaging in brinkmanship with his favorite social media platform: Twitter. He feels he should be able to tweet whatever he wants and has threatened to revoke the federal protections that allow social networks to operate. This squabble actually marks the beginning of an opportunity for social networks to operate more responsibly, so they don’t fatally endanger the sense of truth that holds our democracy together.
The foofaraw began Tuesday when Trump tweeted, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent” and accused California governor Gavin Newsom of “sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there.” This is, of course, just one of a long line of lies tweeted by the president, including tweets claiming that China pays tariffs (American importers do) and that Puerto Rico received more relief money following Hurricane Maria than any state (more money was paid for Hurricane Katrina). Twitter doesn’t block anyone — the president included — just for lying. But Twitter does prohibit lies about elections, so it slapped the president’s tweet with a content warning reading, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.”
Acting swiftly, Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that seeks to regulate social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Google, based on how they censor or treat fact-checking content on their sites. It faces stiff opposition and will likely be challenged in the courts. Undeterred, Twitter on Friday hid another Trump tweet regarding protests in Minnesota behind a warning that labeled it as glorifying violence.
Trump interpreted Twitter’s behavior as acting in bad faith. His executive order on social media states that “Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias.” The order directs federal agencies to create new regulatory standards regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social networks from liability. “Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike,” the order states. “It is the policy of the United States that [a provider showing bias] should properly lose the limited liability shield . . . and be exposed to liability like any traditional editor and publisher that is not an online provider.” According to Trump, Attorney General William Barr will now begin drafting legislation that could “just remove or totally change” Section 230.
This is a big deal. Without Section 230 to protect them, social networks would collapse. When users post false and potentially libelous information, lawsuits would explode. Checking every social network post for accuracy is completely impractical.
Trump’s grandstanding is unlikely to be effective. Trump can’t revoke a federal law, he can’t tell independent agencies like the Federal Communications Commission what to investigate, and he certainly can’t make the case that labeling a tweet is proof of pervasive bias. In a statement, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “[A]n executive order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the president’s speech police is not the answer.”
Clear away the politics, though, and Trump has a point. Social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, have created a haven for foreign actors attempting to influence elections, rapidly spreading disinformation that libels people and damages reputations, and unleashing a never-ending spew of lies, innuendos, distortions, half-truths, and pernicious garbage. Jonathan Taplin, author of “Move Fast and Break Things,” a cautionary book about tech monopolies, thinks Trump is onto something. “Republicans threatening to remove social media ‘Safe Harbor’ status could be a net positive for society,” he told me. “If Facebook or Twitter had liability, they would not allow a user to libel Bill Gates by saying he started the COVID-19 virus so he could plant microchips in everyone’s brain.”
Trump’s implied solution is that anyone — president or entry-level conspiracy theorist — should be able to post pretty much whatever they want on social media. That’s loony. There must be restrictions — and there already are. Facebook won’t allow nudity. Twitter blocks hate speech; it deplatformed Alex Jones after hateful rants. All platforms ban child pornography, as they must under federal law.
These cases are hard enough to detect consistently. Truth, though, is impossible to regulate. Twitter chose a particularly poor Trump tweet to take a stand on. Trump’s statement about mail-in ballot fraud is a prediction — and predictions can’t be evaluated for truth, since they haven’t happened yet. His tweets said that “professionals” will tell people “how, and for whom, to vote.” Who are “professionals” and why is it a problem if they endorse candidates? It’s simply too easy for Trump — or anyone — to claim that their “truth” has just been misinterpreted. (This is why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Twitter made a mistake — because he doesn’t want any social network, his included, to be the “arbiter of truth.”) His lie about sending ballots to everyone sits among a collection of innuendos and half-truths.
There is a way out of this mess, and it has two components.
First, social network policy must be consistent and unbiased. Facebook took a step in the right direction by creating an independent oversight board that will make decisions and recommendations regarding content, although it won’t regulate political advertising. Big social networks are wildly profitable — they can afford to put in place the consistent policies and moderation that an oversight board recommends. And by outsourcing the decisions to a diverse body, the social network will insulate itself from accusations of bias in how it behaves. Twitter’s decision was problematic because it was unusual — if the company had a consistent set of rules implemented based on recommendations from an independent set of overseers, rather than picking one or two questionable tweets to label, it wouldn’t seem as if it suddenly got religious about tweets from Trump.
Second, there should be a lot more labeling and contextual information around questionable content, not less. Facebook already labels information that fact-checkers have determined to be false and slows its spread. Twitter’s warning labels on Trump’s tweets were carefully calibrated — they indicated that there was more information available on mail-in ballots, without calling anyone a liar. Phil Simon, author of “The Age of the Platform,” agrees that Twitter did the right thing. “Last time I checked, there’s no constitutional right to tweet,” he said. And a warning label doesn’t prevent anyone from reading Trump’s tweets, or believing them.
Whoever wins the 2020 election will head up an administration with a mandate to regulate social networks. Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have now both called for reexamining social networks’ Section 230 protections. Liability is an existential threat to social networks — if Congress threatens to tweak it, social networks will come to heel. Encouraging — or legislating — social network policies that slow the spread of disinformation is crucial. Because it’s not an exaggeration to say that American democracy depends on clearly labeling, and on slowing the spread of, disinformation campaigns we’ve all been tricked into sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — including threats and conspiracy theories promoted by the president of the United States.
Josh Bernoff is the author or coauthor of six books on media and marketing. He blogs daily at bernoff.com.