We need social media reform, but not under Trump
Trump's latest tweets and Facebook posts have revealed deep chasms on information policy, not least between the leaders of the tech giants themselves. So what happens now?
It is difficult to parody the activities of President Donald J. Trump.
On an almost daily basis he pushes his own incomparable limits. Who but Trump would cause tear gas to be used on peaceful protestors so a way could be cleared to enable him to stand outside St Johns, the presidential church, clutching a bible, in a way, as has been pointed out, that demonstrated he had little experience of holding either a bible or any book.
Then as the demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd turned nasty, instead of acting the statesman, Trump reaches back to the 1960s for an inflammatory slogan – “when the looting starts the shooting starts.”
To make matters worse this was followed by threats to send in the military.
But away from the smoke of burning cars the most significant new front that Trump has opened up is the attack on Twitter, and by default the rest of the social media giants, who he believes silences, or downplays conservative voices.
It was the looting and shooting tweet that seems to have been a last straw for Twitter which has allowed thousands of Trump tweets to go out to his 80 million followers across his Presidency, many of them highly questionable, without comment or restraint.
The action was modest. Twitter said the tweet broke its policies on “glorifying violence” but it was not removed, merely made less accessible.
Twitter had also attached a fact check label for the first time to a Trump rant claiming California’s plans for a Presidential election postal ballot was designed to produce “a rigged election.”
Twitter said gently that the claim was potentially misleading. In fact academic studies have already shown that repeated Trump claims about ballot rigging had no basis in fact. One found only 31 individual cases of identity fraud across the US.
Strange for Twitter, which has benefited hugely from the attention, notoriety and traffic of the Trump tweets, to suddenly begin applying fact-checking principles at this moment.
Completely predictable that Trump would go nuts about the mildest restraint, scream about left-wing censorship by the tech giants and reach for executive orders.
The affair has opened up deep chasms on information policy, not least between the leaders of the tech giants themselves.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey stuck to his guns.
“Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me. Please leave our employees out of this. 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 tweeted.
Over at Facebook the company let Trump’s looting and shooting comment go unchecked and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg noted he had let it stand as the leader of an organisation “committed to free expression.”
It was important, Zuckerberg argued, for users to see it for themselves and for those in power to be held accountable.
A single comment, a great gulf between two theories of where the lines, if any should be drawn, on freedom of expression.
Zuckerberg couldn’t even carry all his own staff with him, many of whom said they were ashamed of a decision to do nothing about comments that “glorified violence.”
At such a time of crisis in American society, history, they said would not judge Facebook kindly.
Then along comes Trump with his unique ability to make a bad situation worse with his petulant executive order.
Trump wants to modify section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
In case the section has not been committed to every memory, it simply offers protection for providers of interactive computer services from liability for third party content that they publish.
Lawyers have described the section as “the 26 words that created the internet.”
It all goes back to the fundamental argument over whether the tech giants are neutral platform operators or publishers forced to take responsibility for what appears on their sites.
They are indeed publishers, although of a most unconventional kind, even though there are limits to what can be done when thousands of messages are being transmitted by the second.
On the publisher spectrum Dorsey is clearly at one end and Zuckerberg at the other.
In this complex set of fundamental principles Trump has blundered in with a call for the Federal Government to review section 230 with the implication that it should be dropped or seriously modified.
According to the Wall Street Journal Trump is even considering setting up a commission to investigate the supposed anti-conservative bias of the social media.
What happens next?
Probably very little. The Federal Communications Commission is an independent agency that does not have to take action on a Trump executive order and even if it did the issue would be in the courts for years – certainly well beyond the November election.
Trump tweets and knee-jerk executive orders are no way to reform anything.
In quieter times, and ideally under a different President, it may be time to consider reform of Section 230.
Almost everything has changed in the world of communications since 1996. The time has come to look again at the vast information monopolies that have been created, their effects on society and the tax that they pay or do not pay.
And yes legislation may be needed to determine just how great their obligation as publishers should be but Trump should not be let close to so delicate an undertaking.
The likelihood is that this will be a task for another President next year.
Apart from his many other “achievements” Trump has totally bungled the Covid-19 crisis and has mishandled the uproar over the Floyd killing.
The social media giants were never his best buddies but he is even losing the support of what was once his main propaganda arm Fox News.
Has Fox detected the smell of failure?
As Fox News host Tucker Carlson put it in a scathing attack on his handling of current events: “What Americans want most right now is an end to this chaos. They want their cities to be saved. They want to stop this immediately. If the commander-in-chief cannot stop it he will lose in November.”
Referring to an attack on a Fox News journalist Carlson asked if Trump cannot stop such an attack “across the street from your house how can you protect my family?”