Trump signs executive order to punish social media censorship

President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence walk along the Colonnade of the White House prior to a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Monday, March 30, 2020, in the Rose Garden at the White House.
President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence walk along the Colonnade of the White House prior to a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Monday, March 30, 2020, in the Rose Garden at the White House. | White House/Tia Dufour)

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday urging federal agencies to hold social media companies accountable for censoring political viewpoints despite reported opposition within the White House. 

“Today, I am signing an executive order to protect and uphold the free speech and rights of the American people,” Trump said at a briefing in the Oval Office. “Currently, social media giants, like Twitter, receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they are a neutral platform, which they are not.” 

Through Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, social media platforms aren't held liable for the content users publish on their platforms that could be deemed defamatory. 

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“My executive order calls for new regulations under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make it that social media companies that engage in censoring any political conduct will not be able to keep their liability shield,” he added. “That’s a pretty big deal.” 

According to the president's order, Section 230 "was designed to address early court decisions holding that, if an online platform restricted access to some content posted by others, it would thereby become a 'publisher' of all the content posted on its site for purposes of torts such as defamation."

The order contends that Section 230 "intended to further the express vision of the Congress that the internet is a 'forum for a true diversity of political discourse.'" 

"The limited protections provided by the statute should be construed with these purposes in mind," the order reads.   

In his press briefing, Trump said that the choices that social media companies make when they suppress, edit, blacklist and ban are "editorial decisions." 

"In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform and they become an editor with a viewpoint," Trump said. 

The order instructs the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to take appropriate action against companies that engage in any "deceptive acts or practices" affecting commerce. 

"Such unfair or deceptive acts or practice may include practices by entities covered by section 230 that restrict speech in ways that do not align with those entities’ public representations about those practices," the order states. 

The order calls on federal agencies to ensure that applications of Section 230 "reflects the narrow purpose of the section."

The order instructs the Secretary of Commerce, the attorney general and Telecommunications and Information Administration to file a petition for rulemaking with the FCC to "determine the circumstances under which a provider of an interactive computer service that restricts access to content in a manner not specifically protected by [Section 230] may also not be able to claim protection."

The order also calls on each federal agency to review the amount they are spending on social media advertising and review "statutory authorities available to restrict their receipt of advertising dollars."

Trump's order comes after he vowed on Wednesday through Twitter to “strongly regulate” or even close down social media companies before allowing them to “silence conservatives voices.”

“We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can’t let a more sophisticated version of that,” Trump stressed in a tweet. 

The order also said that the White House will send over 16,000 complaints of social media censorship based on political viewpoints that it has received to the FTC and Department of Justice for review. 

“In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to handpick the speech that Americans may access and convey online,” states the order. 

FCC commissioners took different sides in remarks issued after reports of a draft order surfaced Wednesday. 

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said that the reported executive order “does not work.” 

“Social media can be frustrating. But an Executive Order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the president’s speech police is not the answer,” she argued in a statement. “It’s time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment. History won’t be kind to silence.” 

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr expressed support for the idea that Section 230 should be reexamined.

"I think given what we've seen over the last few weeks, it makes sense to let the public weigh-in and say 'is that really what Congress meant' when they passed and provided those special protections," Carr said.

Trump’s vow to regulate social media companies comes after Twitter fact-checked one of his tweets stating that mail-in ballots in the 2020 election will be fraudulent. 

In an interview with Fox Business, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg opposed the idea of new regulations.

“I would have to understand what they intend to do,” he said. “But in general, I think a government censoring a platform because they are worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex there.”

Also in the interview, Zuckerburg shot down the idea that social media platforms should be fact-checking posts. 

“We have a different policy, I think, than Twitter on this,” he said. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth that people say online. I mean in general, private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in a position of doing that.” 

In a Twitter thread, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the company's policy. 

“We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make,” Dorsey wrote. “This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’ Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

Twitter has admitted to shadow banning users' tweets it disagrees with, mostly conservative speech and pro-life groups. In an interview with podcaster Joe Rogan last year, Dorsey addressed several instances of site's viewpoint discrimination, especially pertaining to people not using transgender pronouns, and said Twitter stands by its policy of banning users who don't use trans pronouns. Dorsey also told Rogan that Twitter will continue to be a source for pornography and he will never ban porn from the site.  

Trump administration sources reportedly told Yahoo News that before the order was issued a draft of the order came under some opposition in the White House.

One purported source said “[t]here is pushback from a lot of people” inside the White House, with “a lot of frustration” from advisers who are some of the president’s most loyal backers. 

Sources told the outlet that Vice President Mike Pence’s office and National Economic Council Chairman Larry Kudlow argued that such an order could set a bad precedent of a federal government going after private companies for political reasons. 

The order also comes as many Christian individuals and organizations have voiced concern for years about their posts being censored on social media. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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