Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that seeks to curtail the broad protections that shield social media companies from being liable for the content published on their platforms. The executive order aims to empower federal regulators to penalize companies like Facebook or Twitter for suspending users or removing content, for example, by claiming that doing so violates free speech.
The executive order challenges the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants social networks and other sites immunity from liability for the content that is posted on their sites. While it’s unclear what the internet would look like without Section 230, legal experts have suggested it could lead to a future where either websites don’t allow any user generated content for fear of being sued, or allow a very limited range of it.
The executive order came just days after Twitter flagged two of the President’s tweets about mail-in ballots as “potentially misleading,” and included a link to a fact-checking page. Trump lashed out at Twitter and later wrote, “Big action to follow!”
It’s clear that Trump is using his presidential power to try to intimidate Twitter for rightly attempting to hold him accountable for his tweets. As I have said before, the president largely owes his 2016 election win to the platform, which provided him with a free, unregulated means to build a massive following and spread falsehoods. After years of allowing Trump to spread lies and abuse on its platform for his own political gain, it finally appears as if Twitter is growing a backbone (the company has continued adding fact-checking labels amid news the President was preparing an executive order). But Trump’s latest salvo could dampen the willingness of other companies to stand up to the President. The fight over the executive order, which is sure to face a legal challenge, will play out just as Trump seeks re-election. The stakes could not be higher, and it’s more important than ever that voters receive accurate information on social media.
It’s true that Section 230 needs to be amended – but in the opposite way than Trump is proposing. One of the biggest problems on the internet right now is the proliferation of misinformation. According to a study by Oxford University researchers, a majority of the claims about the pandemic that have been debunked by factcheckers remain on Twitter without warning labels. The report also found that one of the biggest sources of false information were public figures, including celebrities and politicians like Trump. During the coronavirus pandemic, this false information can put people’s lives at risk.
Another huge problem on the Internet is hate. The majority of Americans have been victims of online harassment and 37% have experienced severe forms of it, including stalking and physical threats, according to a study conducted in 2018 by the Anti-Defamation League. The study also found that 80% of Americans want the government to strengthen laws about cyberhate.
Trump’s executive order would strengthen the ability to perpetrate online harassment and spread lies with impunity, because social networks would live in fear of legal penalties for moderating such content. That’s why, rather than establishing rules that would stifle their ability to block hate speech or misinformation, the government should make it as easy as possible for content moderation to happen – and penalize companies for not removing clearly malicious content.
In fact, the situation that social networks now find themselves in illustrates exactly why abuse and lies should never be tolerated on their platforms – especially when they come from powerful people like Trump. If Twitter had stepped in to fact-check Trump’s tweets when he was still a candidate for the highest office in the land, he might never have become President, with the power to threaten the company with this self-serving and dangerous executive order.
Going forward, the absolute worst thing that tech companies could do would be to give in to the President. Social networks must band together to defend and uphold their right – indeed their duty – to take down false and threatening posts that could cause the American people real harm. If they don’t, they might tip the 2020 election to Trump by enabling him to make false claims and allowing him to harass or threaten those who attempt to hold him to account.
Trump may have been motivated to issue his executive order after Twitter called two of his tweets “potentially misleading.” In reality, that description was a polite way of describing what Trump is really doing: using the Internet to spread falsehoods. Now he is threatening companies who attempt to stand in the way of his ability to do so. Social networks must not capitulate to him.