US President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn upon his return to the White House in Washington, DC on May 27, 2020.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order cracking down on “censorship” by social media sites, a move widely seen by critics as retaliation against Twitter’s decision to slap fact-checking labels on the president’s tweets.
The executive order targets the immunity granted companies through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Without congressional action, however, there are limits to what Trump can do with the executive order. The president said Thursday that he would indeed pursue legislation in addition to the order.
Attorney General William Barr, who also attended the signing, said the Justice Department would also seek to sue social media companies, saying the statute “has been stretched way beyond its original intention.”
Barr earlier this year signaled the department’s intention to look “critically” at the law, originally designed to allow growing technology companies protection. But critics of the law have argued it allowed social media firms to turn a blind eye to unlawful content. It is unclear, though, on what grounds the Justice Department might sue.
While Barr said that the president’s order does not repeal Section 230, Trump added shortly after: “One of the things we may do … is remove or totally change [Section] 230.”
The executive order came two days after Twitter, for the first time, added warning links to two of Trump’s tweets, inviting readers to “get the facts.” The tweets made a series of claims about state-led mail-in voting services, an issue Trump has railed against in recent weeks.
The labels, when clicked, led Twitter users to a page describing Trump’s claims as “unsubstantiated.”
“Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to ‘a Rigged Election.’ However, fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud,” Twitter’s fact-checking page said, citing reporting from CNN, The Washington Post and other news outlets.
Trump said Thursday that social media companies selectively choosing who to fact-check is tantamount to “political activism, and it’s inappropriate.”
On Wednesday night, he lashed out – on Twitter – accusing the social media giant of “interfering” in the 2020 presidential election and trying to “CENSOR” him.
“If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!” Trump tweeted Wednesday night.
The president had earlier tweeted that “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”
Trump’s threat was quickly met with criticism. “Rather than threatening to shut down Twitter, it would make more sense for him to back up his position using evidence rather than acting eerily similar to his nemesis – China – by threatening to shut down anything that stands in his way,” said Ray Walsh of digital freedom site ProPrivacy.
“Much as he might wish otherwise, Donald Trump is not the president of Twitter,” said American Civil Liberties Union Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane after a draft of the executive order was made public. “This order, if issued, would be a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.”
Trump’s opponents have long pressured Twitter to take action against his frequent, and frequently criticized, use of the platform. Of the 18,000-plus false or misleading claims Trump has made as president, more than 3,300 were made in tweets, according to The Washington Post.
Those calls for action reached a fever pitch this week, as Trump continued making baseless suggestions that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough might have been involved in the death in 2001 of his former staffer when he served in Congress.
The staffer’s widower asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to remove Trump’s tweets on the matter. “I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain,” the widower wrote in a letter to Dorsey.
Twitter refused to delete Trump’s tweets about Scarborough. But Dorsey on Wednesday defended his company’s fact-checking labels, saying Twitter will “continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally.”
Before Trump’s executive order had been revealed, one of his allies in the Senate had already questioned whether Twitter had forfeited its legal protections under the Communications Decency Act. That law protects Twitter and other websites from bearing responsibility for the content posted by its users.
That senator, Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri, vowed in a tweet to “introduce legislation to end these special government giveaways.”