Thursday, May 28, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to use the power of the government to force social media to help him politically.

On Tuesday, Twitter added a link to two of Trump's tweets about voting in the upcoming election, correcting the false statements he'd made. Today, Trump issued an executive order aimed at forcing Twitter and other social media companies to ignore any such misinformation he might want to post in the future.

Trump's order calls for a reinterpretation of a particular law that shields such companies from policing the content that users post. Without that protection, everything from tweets to Facebook posts to YouTube videos would have to be approved for posting in advance, or else the companies that ran those services would risk being sued.

The order is probably dead on arrival in the courts, but as a show of force it might make Twitter and Facebook think twice about blowing the whistle on the Russian bot-networks that spread disinformation and carefully amplified Trump's campaign message in 2016. (Trump has said he would accept such "help" again, even though it is absolutely illegal to do so.)

One of the main reasons the order can't be enforced is that government suppression of speech—which Trump has explicitly said is the point of this order—is exactly what the First Amendment protects against. In other words, Trump is trying to censor Twitter, not the other way around.

Ironically, though, if Trump's order were somehow to take effect, it would immediately force Twitter to start deleting Trump tweets, or ban him entirely. Trump routinely posts or retweets incitement to violence, hate speech, and defamatory lies, and Twitter has never deleted them or banned Trump. Under Trump's proposed reinterpretation of the law, Twitter could be sued for letting those posts stay up.

It's not clear whether Trump knows or understands any of this. But claiming that a private company is "censoring" the President of the United States does fit with Trump's main campaign message of late, which is less about trying to win the election and more about about sowing doubt in case he loses.

Why does this matter?

  • The whole point of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from trying to shield itself from criticism.