In relation to the large-scale BLM protests in the US prompted by the killing of George Floyd last month, President Trump took time off his day to tweet the following: ‘‘When the looting starts the shooting starts”. His tweet has understandably been the subject of public outrage, not only because of the violent nature of the phrase itself, but also because of the quote’s historical origin. This tweet featured on both Twitter and Facebook, and while the former flagged the tweet as violating Twitter’s rules for glorifying violence, the latter did nothing and kept the post as is.
It has been twitter’s policy since July 2019 that if a public figure says something harmful but newsworthy, the tweet would be kept on the platform but restricted. The restriction refers to placing a warning on the tweet to note that it breaks Twitter’s rules and stops users from retweeting it or replying to it. The purpose of such a restriction is to make sure “the tweet is not algorithmically elevated” on the platform and “to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these Tweets”.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, defended his hands-off approach by expressing that Facebook should not be the arbiter of truth, and reiterated that freedom of speech was one of the central ideas behind Facebook and, as such, the platform aims to be neutral. This shows two very different approaches taken by Twitter and Facebook in relation to moderation of content.
Twitter’s approach in particular, however, has prompted retaliatory action from Trump that could end up harming both Twitter and Facebook. Trump has signed an executive order aimed at removing some of the legal protections enjoyed by social media platforms in s.230 of the Communications Decency Act. This section protects owners of platforms from liability for user-generated content and moderation of posts, i.e. blocking, censoring, etc, which can be seen as encouraging owners to moderate content.
Pre s.230, platforms could be conduits, i.e. leave anything anyone posted on their platforms untouched and provide a disclaimer excluding liability for user-generated content in relation to which we cannot be sued. Or, they could moderate content and assume liability. The executive order challenges these legal protections, expressing that they should no longer apply if a platform moderates and edits posts – an action like adding a warning label to Trump’s tweet.
Trump signed the executive order, highlighting that the power social media platforms possess to edit user-generated content threatens freedom of speech and therefore such companies should not be accorded any shield from liability for their actions. Nonetheless, Trump’s action may deter platforms from moderating content and thereby exposing the general public to user-generated content that may be harmful and may fuel the spread of misinformation.
The alternative outcome is that the executive order may lead to very harsh moderation practices taken by platforms to ensure they are not sued for any content on their platforms. This seems like an alternative that may be overbearing on users’ freedom of speech and contradicts Trump’s reasoning behind the executive order. However, it’s clear that the executive order is unlikely to lead to direct changes to the law and seems more symbolic in nature. New regulations will have to be proposed and voted upon by independent government agencies until real change can occur.
In theory the executive order would harm both Twitter and Facebook, despite their different reactions to Trump’s tweets. We have also seen Facebook suffer backlash for its decision to leave the Trumps’ posts unfettered on its platform. This backlash included a ‘virtual walkout’ by its employees, resignations and explicit disapproval on social media platforms.
This alludes to the fact that it seems no longer an option for companies to be passive and neutral towards significant topics like politics and social injustice. The status quo seems to be challenged by the general public who now demands action. Accordingly, we’ve seen numerous companies release corporate statements to take a stand against social injustice.
By Alice Muasher