Bye Bye Birdie: President Trump takes on social media

June 19, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

A series of exchanges between President Trump and Twitter, with the latter applying notices and hiding tweets from the fast-thumbed commander in chief, has culminated in the President attacking social media platforms.

What does this mean?

On 26 May 2020, President Trump tweeted that mail-in ballots would lead to voter fraud. Twitter responded by placing a warning on the tweet that this statement was unsubstantiated. Two days later, President Trump signed an Executive Order challenging the protections social media giants have from liability for content posted on their apps.  The next day, 29 May 2020, Twitter hid a tweet from the President due to it “glorifying violence”.

What's the big picture effect?

In the mid-90s, a piece of legislation was conceived in America to keep up with the developing internet, the Communications Decency Act 1996. In 2006, one section in particular, section 230, suddenly became massively important. This section effectively stated that for the purposes of any form of prosecution social media companies were not to be seen as publishers of their users’ content. For many victims of libel, offensive and unfair postings about themselves, this section made it far harder to seek redress, as sites such as Twitter and Facebook could simply deny responsibility. Whilst there are measures in place to balance the impact of this legislation, such as Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the General Data Protection Regulations of the EU, there have still been steadily growing demands that social media companies begin to take more control for what is published on their sites. The issue for anyone seeking to revise current legislation is that in censoring or editing people’s personal posts, there is always an implicit freedom of speech challenge. This balance between the right to freedom of speech and the need to protect people, both from libellous content and from fake news, is a tough one to make.

For hiding his tweets, and adding messages stating the unsubstantiated nature of his claims, Trump argued that Twitter was taking on the functions of a publisher, and, therefore, they needed to take on the risks and liabilities of a publisher. President Trump has in the past accused the giants of attempts to “rig the election”, and the wording of the executive order argues against “selective censorship”, so it seems likely that Trump’s actions are meant to focus merely on tweets being edited or hidden by twitter that he posts/supports. However, the reality of the matter is if these social media giants had full responsibility for ensuring the legality of posts on their platform, defamatory content such as personal character attacks tweeted randomly in the early hours of the morning would likely not make the cut. Who would that impact most, Mr President?

Report written by Hari Majumdar

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