President Trump signed an executive order Thursday to force social media companies to operate without political bias, saying platforms such as Twitter form a monopoly with “unchecked power.”
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history,” Mr. Trump said as he signed the order in the Oval Office with Attorney General William P. Barr at his side. “There’s no precedent in American history for so small a number of corporations to control so large a sphere of human interaction.”
The order requires the Federal Communications Commission to craft a regulation that could exempt social media companies from protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields companies from legal liability for material posted by their users, if they censor or edit content.
The president, who has long criticized the social media giants for an anti-conservative bias, said his order will ensure that any platforms “that engage in censoring or any political conduct” will lose their liability protections.
“Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they’re a neutral platform, which they’re not,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ve had unchecked power to censure, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences. We’re fed up with it.”
The president signed the order just two days after Twitter, for the first time, posted fact-checking labels on two of his tweets in which he criticized states’ efforts to expand voting by mail. The labels directed users to fact-checking by media outlets such as The Washington Post and CNN, which stated that the president made an “unsubstantiated claim” about mail-in voting leading to widespread voter fraud.
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Mr. Trump took the election-year action as he trails presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden in national polls and in polling averages of several battleground states.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the president’s order a “desperate distraction” from the coronavirus crisis.
“The president’s executive order does nothing to address big internet companies’ complete failure to fight the spread of disinformation,” Mrs. Pelosi said in a statement. “Instead the president is encouraging Facebook and other social media giants to continue to exploit and profit off falsehoods with total impunity — while at the same time directing the federal government to dismantle efforts to help users distinguish fact from fiction.”
Twitter had no immediate reaction, although CEO Jack Dorsey said earlier that his company is not trying to be an “arbiter of truth.”
“Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves,” Mr. Dorsey tweeted Wednesday night. “More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called out Twitter for labeling Mr. Trump’s tweets. He told Fox News that privately owned digital platforms should not act as the “arbiter of truth.”
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“Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that,” he said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took the unusual step of criticizing Mr. Trump’s order soon after he signed it.
“Regardless of the circumstances that led up to this, this is not how public policy is made in the United States,” the nation’s largest business group said. “An executive order cannot be properly used to change federal law.”
Mr. Barr will work with states on developing their own regulations. The attorney general said social media companies have “stretched” the intent of the 1990s-era law to enrich themselves and grow more powerful.
“They are using that market power to force particular viewpoints, and that’s wrong,” Mr. Barr said. “This will help to get back to the right balance.”
The president has more than 80 million Twitter followers. Some Democratic and media critics say Mr. Trump is trying to create special online treatment for himself. Earlier in the day, he retweeted a video of a New Mexico supporter saying “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”
Asked why he doesn’t delete his Twitter accounts, Mr. Trump replied, “If we had fair press in this country, I would do that in a heartbeat.”
Ironically, Mr. Biden called this year for Section 230 to be rescinded entirely.
“Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, No. 1,” Mr. Biden told The New York Times editorial board in January, “for [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg and other platforms.”
Mr. Biden is isolated on the issue from many in his party, including Mrs. Pelosi.
The president’s order also calls for the White House office of digital strategy to revive an online tool enabling people to report “online censorship and other potentially unfair or deceptive acts or practices by online platforms.” Those complaints would be submitted to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.
The order also prohibits federal agencies from spending tax dollars on advertising with platforms that violate free speech.
“Taxpayer dollars are not going to any social media companies that suppress free speech,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re rich enough.”
Conservatives have long accused social media giants of political bias. They point to examples of high-profile conservatives being barred from the platforms.
Media Research Center President Brent Bozell said Twitter, Facebook and other big-tech companies “are guilty of censoring conservatives, and their protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be reviewed.”
“Both Twitter and Facebook have embraced so-called ‘fact-checkers’ to moderate content, and almost all of them are left-wing and use their authority to push a leftist agenda,” Mr. Bozell said. “This problem began as a primal scream from Silicon Valley leftists devastated over the result of the 2016 election. Now, many in Big Tech are doing everything in their power to discredit the president and derail his reelection. The right doesn’t want to wreck the internet; it wants to preserve it as the open forum it was intended to be.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, said if Twitter, Google and other social media companies “are going to editorialize and censor and act like traditional publishers, they should be treated like traditional publishers and stop receiving the special carve-out from the federal government in Section 230.” Mr. Hawley has introduced legislation to change the law.
But Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who co-authored Section 230 of the law, said the president’s order is an effort “to chill speech and bully companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter into giving him favorable treatment.”
“Donald Trump’s order is plainly illegal,” Mr. Wyden said. “He’s clearly targeting Section 230 because it protects private businesses’ right not to have to play host to his lies. There is nothing in the law about political neutrality. It does not say companies like Twitter are forced to carry misinformation about voting, especially from the president. Efforts to erode Section 230 will only make online content more likely to be false and dangerous.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said Mr. Trump is trying to engage in his own version of censorship.
ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane said the president “has no authority to rewrite a congressional statute with an executive order imposing a flawed interpretation of Section 230.”
“Section 230 incentivizes platforms to host all sorts of content without fear of being held liable for it. It enables speech, not censorship,” she said.
Marty Lederman, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center, called the pending executive order “a political document, intended to rile up the base,” tweeting that it is “bluster w/o effect.”
He said even if Mr. Trump orders Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to direct the FCC to come up with a proposed regulation, “it’s hard to imagine the FCC doing anything with it.” He also predicted the independent Federal Trade Commission would ignore such a directive.
Jim Manley, a lawyer with the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, called the president’s order “completely backward” in its approach to the First Amendment.
“These platforms have a First Amendment right to decide what sort of content they’re going to host,” he said in an interview. “And there may be implications under Section 230 if they make decisions about content, but the companies have a First Amendment right to decide what content they host and how they host it.”
Mr. Trump and his advisers pointed to biased comments by Twitter executive Yoel Roth, who has tweeted about “actual Nazis in the White House” and referred to Mr. Trump after the 2016 election as “a racist tangerine.”
Mr. Dorsey responded, “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.”
As he signed the order, the president renewed his arguments against expanded voting by mail, which is being pushed in several states as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we went to mail-in balloting, our election would look all over the world as a total joke,” the president told reporters, citing California’s mailing of ballots to millions of registered voters. “There’s such fraud and abuse. The Republican Party cannot let it happen. There’s ballot harvesting. You don’t think they rip them out of mailboxes? They can even print ballots. You have tremendous potential for fraud and abuse.
“No,” he said, “you have to go [in person] and you have to vote.”