Current the timeline of events:
- On Tuesday (5/26), US President Donald Trump tweeted this comment on mail in ballots:
....living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
- That tweet was flagged by one of Twitter's third-party fact-checking partners as being potentially in violation of Twitter's 'Civic Integrity Policy' which is designed to stop the distribution of misleading information about voter participation.
- Twitter's internal team then reviewed the tweet, and found that it did not violate the rules, but it did warrant a warning label given that it could mislead people as to how the mail-in process functions, and could also reduce voter participation.
- Twitter added warning labels to the tweets, which are now in a new format that's more prominent in display.
- President Trump accused Twitter of bias, which add to previous concerns he's raised about social platforms potentially restricting conservative speech.
- On Wednesday (5/27), The White House announced that President Trump would sign an Executive Order regarding social media companies.
- On Thursday (5/28), President Trump signed an executive order for the review of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, as explained by CNBC, "largely exempts online platforms from legal liability for the material their users post". The Order questions whether social platforms should lose protections under Section 230 if they censor or edit posted content, thereby intervening in an editorial capacity, as opposed to merely hosting user commentary.
- Twitter posted this response to the Executive Order:
This EO is a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) May 29, 2020
- Facebook has also responded to the Executive Order, saying that: "Repealing or limiting Section 230 [...] will restrict more speech online, not less. By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone."
- On Thursday evening, Twitter once again added a warning message to one of Trump's tweets, this time in relation to the ongoing Minneapolis protests.
- In response to Twitter's latest warning, President Trump continued to call for action to limit the platform's protections on Friday (5/29).
REVOKE 230!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
- On Friday evening, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to concerns that Facebook has allowed President Trump's comments about the Minneapolis unrest to remain up. Zuckerberg defended Facebook's position, saying that: "ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open".
- On Sunday evening (5/31), Facebook employees began publicly noting their anger at the company's refusal to follow Twitter's lead, particularly in relation to inflammatory comments from President Trump.
I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up. The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.— Jason Toff (@jasontoff) June 1, 2020
- On Monday (6/1), The New York Times reported that Facebook employees were staging stop work action in protest against the company's inaction. Facebook has called a meeting on Tuesday to discuss.
- On Monday morning, Twitter added a warning to this tweet from Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, again citing its rules about glorifying violence (note: those warnings do not appear on embedded tweets).
Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) June 1, 2020
- On Tuesday (6/2), amid growing internal calls for a change in policy direction, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated the company's stance on not fact-checking or adding warnings to posts made by political leaders. Facebook held an all-staff meeting to discuss the issue, advising that their decision making behind the process was thorough.
- Also on Tuesday, more Facebook staff voiced their opposition to the company's stance, with some announcing that they're leaving the company as a result.
Facebook software engineer quits, says in his resignation announcement that "Facebook, complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history." pic.twitter.com/aoYdzkIt4K— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) June 2, 2020
- Twitter has also provided more context as to its decision-making process in regards to adding warning labels on tweets in this thread:
There’s been a lot of conversation around Twitter’s enforcement actions recently. We want to take a step back and share the principles we use to empower healthy public conversation through our product, policies, and enforcement...????— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) June 3, 2020
- On Wednesday (6/3), Snapchat announced that it will no longer be promoting the account of US President Donald Trump due to his posts on other social platforms. As per Snap: "We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover". Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale has accused Snap of "engaging in voter suppression".
- On Friday (6/5), Twitter disabled a George Floyd tribute video posted by Trump campaign, citing a copyright complaint.
- Also on Friday, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri explained in his latest Q and A session (via his Instagram Story) that Facebook is indeed re-evaluating its policies around state use of force and voter supression. Mosseri said that Trump's '...when the looting starts, the shooting starts' post was 'aggressive, offensive and dangerous', but 'did not quite violate our policies'.
- On Friday evening, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would review its policies, in line with Mosseri's comments.
- Also on Friday evening, President Trump accused Twitter of breaking the law and "fighting hard for the Radical Left Democrats" in response to the above-noted removal of a video posted by the Trump administration. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey refuted this claim.
Not true and not illegal.— jack (@jack) June 6, 2020
This was pulled because we got a DMCA complaint from copyright holder. https://t.co/RAsaYng71a
- On Tuesday (6/10) The New York Times reported that some advertisers had begun pulling ad spend from Facebook due to its inaction on Trump's posts.
NOTE: The original post below has been updated to reflect the evolving situation.
In response to Twitter adding fact-check markers to two of his tweets regarding mail-in ballots, US President Donald Trump has this week signed an Executive Order which calls for a review of federal laws which protect social networks from liability for the content that they host on their platforms.
On Tuesday evening, Trump took to Twitter to voice his concerns about the platform's actions:
....happen again. Just like we can’t let large scale Mail-In Ballots take root in our Country. It would be a free for all on cheating, forgery and the theft of Ballots. Whoever cheated the most would win. Likewise, Social Media. Clean up your act, NOW!!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020
The following day, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said that President Trump would sign an executive order "regarding social media companies". No further detail was provided at the time, but the assumption, based on Trump's earlier tweeted comments, was that the Trump administration would call for an investigation into alleged bias, then seek to implement penalties or restrictions as a result.
Twitter has now shown that everything we have been saying about them (and their other compatriots) is correct. Big action to follow!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020
On Thursday, President Trump followed through on this, signing an Executive Order which seeks to take away Section 230 legal protections for social platforms if they choose to edit or censor what users post.
What, exactly, the EO and subsequent process will mean is unclear. If an investigation is conducted into Twitter's conduct in this instance, the likely finding would be that the company has operated within its rights as a private organization, and that it's able to define its platform rules as it pleases. It's not a public utility, and it's under no obligation to provide equal or unfettered share of voice to anyone. A specific investigation would also likely find that, if anything, Twitter has been relatively lenient on Trump's past statements, allowing various comments that would see regular users face action go unenforced.
The larger concern, however, is that if Trump is able to change the law, and remove Section 230 protection for social media platforms, that will lead to significant impacts on how they operate. As Facebook notes (in the timeline above), if platforms are held responsible for everything everyone posts, they'll basically have to restrict anything that could be deemed offensive, in any way.
In essence, they would no longer be able to operate, at least as we know them.
Looking at this case in isolation, Twitter has seemingly applied its rules correctly - yet even so, its decision to essentially label Trump's tweets as misleading has pushed it into difficult territory, particularly with respect to the millions of Trump supporters, who will likely now add Twitter to their list of 'fake news' media opponents.
Indeed, Trump's supporters have already launched smear campaigns against Twitter staffers, including its Head of Site Integrity Yoel Roth, who some appear to hold responsible for the notification on Trump's tweets.
One consideration within this for Twitter is the potential impact on usage. If, for example, Trump were to turn his back on the platform in protest, and move someplace else, taking his many supporters with him, that could have a significant impact on Twitter's performance. Trump hasn't said that he's considering this, but it's one of the potential outcomes Twitter could see as a result of this new face-off. And while holding the line on platform rules is more fundamentally important, it's still a consideration - Twitter's still working to build its audience in line with market expectations, with CEO Jack Dorsey, specifically, under pressure to maximize the company's presence.
But then again, maybe now is the time for Twitter to take a stand. The COVID-19 pandemic has already blurred performance results for 2020, and with the Presidential Election race set to heat up, you can expect that there's going to be even more controversy around Trump's use of tweets in future, and Twitter's response (or not) as a result.
If it could take a usage hit, then now is the time, and by taking a stand now, Twitter could also position itself to better enforce its rules on all political tweets moving forward. Twitter, it's worth noting, also banned all political ads on its platform to avoid the possibility of tweets being used by campaigns to spread misinformation.
In some respects, adding the fact check markers to Trump's tweets simply aligns with Twitter's approach on protecting election integrity. But because its the US President, because it's President Trump specifically, it's far more than that.
In terms of the executive order, specifically, legal consensus is that it will not hold up, and that federal laws cannot be altered by White House decry alone. But still, there is a chance that a case could be made which shows that Twitter has applied its rulings unequally, which could give more weight to the claim that it's using Section 230 protection to reinforce a pre-existing political agenda.
That may not be the intention of how Twitter has enforced its rules, but if evidence suggests bias, further action may well follow.
It's impossible to predict the outcome, but President Trump has repeatedly called for increased regulation, and if Twitter now moves to continue adding warnings or restricting responses to his tweets, you can bet that the President will push even harder for action.
Again, it seems unlikely that the case will hold up as intended, but it could still lead to significant impacts for all online platforms.