WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday that could lead to social media companies being held liable for what gets posted on their sites, two days after Twitter added a fact-checking notice to a pair of his tweets.
The administration is seeking a review of a 1996 law that shields internet firms from legal action for content posted by third-party users, according to the order.
The Communications Decency Act states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
The draft order proposes that members of the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission examine the practices of social media providers for fairness and clarify the scope of the Communications Decency Act.
“In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey online. This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic,” the draft states. “When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power.”
On Tuesday, two of the president’s tweets bashing the security of mail-in ballots were labeled “unsubstantiated” by Twitter—the first time the platform has flagged the president’s comments for inaccuracies.
While Trump said anyone in California would be provided with a ballot, “no matter who they are or how they got there,” a small blue link below the tweet provided users with information refuting these claims.
“We added a label to two @realDonaldTrump tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans as part of our efforts to enforce our civic integrity policy. We believe those tweets could confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process,” Twitter’s safety page said.
At a White House briefing Thursday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said it was time to “get the facts about Twitter and other social media platforms targeting their bias against President Trump and conservatives online.”
In a series of posts tweets before the press briefing, Trump attacked Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, calling him a “hater.” The president said it was ridiculous that Twitter executives were trying to make the case that mail-in ballots are not subject to fraud.
Trump’s motive for singling out Roth became apparent during the White House briefing. McEnany, noting Roth once tweeted there were “actual Nazis in the White House,” said the case for the platform’s bias against conservatives is an easy one to make. No fact-check label was ever applied to Rother’s claims, she said, and Twitter’s fact check of the president’s mail-in ballot claims was wrong.
A recent tweet by Dan Scavino, White House deputy chief of staff, was the first to receive a warning label for manipulated media. The post includes a video clip of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, appearing to support the reelection of Donald Trump. The video fails to include Biden’s statements before this calling for Democratic unity, or correcting himself after.
“It is no coincidence that these two unbelievable interventions by Twitter were targeted against the president of the United States and one of the president’s top advisors,” McEnany said. “This is bias in action.”
When asked by reporters if Trump would retract his incorrect statement about California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order mailing ballots to all Californians, not just registered voters, McEnany declined to say the tweet contained a false statement.
“The media is very concerned about the security of our elections but when it comes to mail-in ballots, all of the sudden the concern for election security just melts away,” she said.
A spokesperson for U.S. Senator Ron Wyden – an Oregon Democrat elected in the state’s first all-mail election in 1996 – said in an email Thursday that “experts have widely excoriated Donald Trump and the White House for deliberately spreading misinformation about voting by mail.”
An opinion piece about voting by mail written by Wyden last month says claims by the Trump administration that mail-in voting is wrought with fraud is a “flat-out lie.”
“Oregon aggressively hunts for any election irregularities, and it has never found anything resembling the fantasy scenarios conjured up by Trump and others on the far right,” Wyden wrote.
Jasmine McNealy, associate director of the University of Florida’s Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, said in an email Thursday that the First Amendment generally prohibits the government from forcing an online platform to allow content it finds violates its policies.
“The internet is not broadcast where, at one point, there were regulations requiring so-called honest and balanced coverage of controversial issues,” she wrote.
More than this, McNealy said there are no protections for speech on a privately owned site like Twitter.
“While, in general, I’m all for ensuring platforms are not causing harm, this order is based in the idea that platforms are using their editorial judgment [as] unfair and infringes on speech,” McNealy wrote. “There’s no right to free speech on private platforms; users must [conform] to the organization’s rules.”
The draft executive order also includes language that defines sites like Facebook and Twitter as public forums. McNealy said it would hard for them to be viewed this way under a First Amendment analysis.
“We have seen the influence that social media may have on political, social and other environments. That does not make platforms universally, or in whole, public fora like parks or town squares,” she said.