August 12, 2019
President Donald Trump hopes to pass an executive order that would see social media companies face closer scrutiny from the government, following his repeated allegations that the platforms show bias against conservative viewpoints.
The paper, which is currently in draft stage, would look to hold social media companies more accountable for how they police the content posted by their users. It would also demand investigation into whether or not the platforms are operating with bias.
If passed, the order could have a huge impact on how social media platforms self-regulate and remove outspoken and offensive posters. However, the order is highly likely to come unstuck if challenged by Congress, or by resistance from the big tech firms.
What is the Executive Order?
Originally revealed by Politico, news appeared at the weekend of a draft presidential paper being composed that would look to hold social media more accountable for the way they police comments and users online. Dubbed Protecting Americans from Online Censorship, the paper has serious ramifications for digital discourse. Trump has long been vocal about social media's treatment of conservatives online, and this paper seems to be his attempt to redress a perceived imbalance.
The executive order would see the FCC have the final say on whether or not social media providers are protected under Provision 230, which is a section in the Communications Decency Act. The provision essentially states that sites and services aren't liable for content published on their platforms by users or third parties. In addition, the order would also investigate moderation practices of such companies to decide if they were impartial.
This order comes off the back of Trump's recent claim that he would be “tough” with social media platforms, claiming that they are “treating conservatives unfairly”.
One of the justifications for the paper is cited as being over “15,000 anecdotal complaints” from users about their political views being censored. These may well may have come from a White House site set up in May to collect such information from users, actively asking them to fill out a form if they suspected “political bias”. The form is now closed.
What Would the Executive Order Mean?
At its core, the order, if passed, would allow a lot more government intervention in the day-to-day moderation practices of tech companies. It would also come down hard on those that are seen to remove content or block users “unfairly” for expressing what might be termed political viewpoints.
Internet censorship has been something of a hot button topic during Trump's presidency. Some of Trump's vocal supporters have been de-platformed – that is, being removed from a range of sites and services for breaching their rules, until they simply don't have a virtual soapbox to stand on.
Examples include Milo Yiannopoulos (a right-wing pundit), Alex Jones (host of InfoWars) and Gavin McInnes (Neo-Facist Proud Boys founder). Even House Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign Twitter account was recently temporarily suspended, for a video which included audio threats of violence that had been made against him.
If passed, the executive order would make removing content on social media much more difficult. The decision would ultimately be dictated by the guidelines stipulated by the government, rather than a social media company's internal rules. In effect, this would make de-platforming of controversial figures much trickier.
Trump's move could, cynically, be seen as a way to protect conservatives online above other groups. Most of the high profile groups and users who have had their accounts closed have been right-wing, rather than left-leaning.
Will any of the executive order's demands actually happen? As executive orders don't need approval from Congress, it could realistically be put into motion. However, Congress can overturn executive orders by passing legislation that essentially voids them. Congress may also refuse additional funding for any orders.
Trump's Relationship with Social Media and Big Tech
Despite Trump's avid personal use of Twitter, he's not exactly a supporter of social media and big tech in general. A running theme of his presidency has been calling into question the practices of Facebook, Google et al, especially when he himself has been the target of criticism.
Take the example earlier in the year, when Congress called Google to a hearing to explain how search results are surfaced. During the grilling, Google CEO and Chairman Sundar Pichai had to explain why a photo of Trump appeared when users searched the term ‘idiot'. His answer, that it was down to relevancy and the most appropriate result for the search, probably won him few friends in the White House.
Trump also recently spoke out against crypto-currencies, claiming that they weren't real and were based on “thin air”. Critics have argued that Trump feels threatened by things he can't control. Crypto-currency and Google's search results are just two of the many things outside his immediate scope.
Another example is Trump's recent response to the tragic shootings that once again have sparked the gun debate in America. While some argued for increased gun control, and others demanded censorship of video games, Trump stated that he wanted social media companies to create “tools” to detect mass shooters before they become active.
His plan was scant of details, and paints something of a Minority Report future. But again, it demonstrates his desire for more control and accountability from social media companies.
Politicians certainly have recent form for showing themselves to be less than qualified to legislate on big tech. How far this executive order actually gets remains to be seen. But, the social media giants are unlikely to roll over for Trump, which could mean a long and dirty fight from both sides.
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