“A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States.” So said US President Donald Trump, unlikely challenger of corporate power and even more unlikely defender of democracy on the occasion of the announcement of his Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, issued on May 28.
Trump issued the order after Twitter, the president’s favourite weapon of disinformation, dared to fact-check and slap warnings on some of his tweets, including one posted after protests broke out in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. According to Twitter, Trump’s threatening statement – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – violates the company’s rules about glorifying violence.
In response to this unprecedented type of correction, Trump’s executive order seeks to remove the immunity afforded to internet companies by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects companies like Twitter and Facebook from being sued for libel if users publish defamatory content on their platforms.
The logic here is baffling: if internet companies are going to censor his free speech, Trump will try to remove the protection that allows free speech in the first place – protection that has allowed him to tweet with impunity!
As if that was not enough, Trump is claiming, with newly found antitrust vigour, that a concentration of corporate power (in the form of “censorship” of his tweets) is a direct threat to American democracy. As the executive order states: “When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.”
The Trump administration is right about one thing: social media platforms are not mere bulletin boards. In reality, their algorithms can promote or hide content according to opaque principles that they are not obligated to disclose, and which are not regulated.
Their policies can also foment hate speech and disinformation, which can have serious political ramifications and even put lives at risk. As the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, however, the current administration and its supporters consider it acceptable to endanger some lives in the interest of profit maximisation.
Still, Trump’s strategy is not well thought out, and experts agree that the changes to the law proposed by the executive order – changes that would require the Federal Communications Commission to be involved in determining which companies should be protected by Section 230, and which ones should not – would be ineffective and possibly in violation of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from restricting free speech.
Even if it all came to pass, the good news for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is that his company could escape Trump’s wrath. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has suggested that their fact-checking is necessary to allow users to judge content for themselves, Zuckerberg has consistently held that social media companies should not be in the business of determining what is true or what is not (this time, some Facebook employees are publicly disagreeing with their boss and holding virtual walkouts).
Zuckerberg’s insistence might have less to do with a passion for free speech and more with the fact that controversy, disinformation, and unrest are good business drivers for social media platforms.
They increase traffic and get more users to spend time watching advertisements. This explains why Facebook dismissed its own research about the divisive effect the platform has on society. Facebook, like tobacco companies, knows it is not in the business of protecting its users, as the sharp increase in customer data breaches also shows.
Meanwhile, the government sees hate speech and disinformation posted on social media as useful data points that can be used to monitor citizens, or even foreigners applying for visas.
As for why Twitter, which has previously removed content from Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, is finally standing up to Trump, there is a simple explanation: the tide is finally turning, and many who have been silent may be feeling it is finally safe to be openly critical.
Corporations are coming out in support of Black Lives Matter. Celebrities are participating in George Floyd protests (as long as selfies can be posted afterwards). It is now acceptable at the highest levels of power to make fun of Trump’s obesity or give him nicknames like “President Tweety”.
Trump’s absurd comments that he is prepared to sic the “most vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House have invited comparisons to Mr Burns, the wealthy evil character in the “The Simpsons” animation, famous for his command – “release the hounds”. All this would be amusing if the country were not in the midst of a pandemic, burning with social unrest, and struggling with record unemployment.
So, yes, there is reason to question the relevance of Section 230. And yes, social media corporations wield power in ways that are anti-democratic, like Trump says in his executive order. But beyond that, it is all theatrics.
Trump is what philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call a bullshitter, someone different from a mere liar. According to Frankfurt, a liar still acknowledges the existence of the truth, if only to distract us from it.
A bullshitter, on the other hand, no longer cares about the truth and is only interested in creating impressions. These may have been enough to get Trump elected in 2016 (with a little help from Cambridge Analytica and Russia, which is now trying to take advantage of the George Floyd protests). But perhaps some of his bullshit is finally catching up with him.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.