One would be remiss to say it all started with the tweets suggesting that MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough murdered his young aide nearly 20 years ago. To do so would ignore a years-long relationship between Donald Trump and Twitter in which the social media platform served as the president’s favorite digital enabler by steadfastly refusing to remove or even referee even his most racist tweets.
And so after the Obama “birther” conspiracy theories, after all the vicious attacks on women, immigrants, judges and too many others to name here, after all the tweets giving at least a nod — and often worse — to violence, hatred and white supremacy, Trump surely thought (if he thought at all) that he’d gotten away with it again. After all, Twitter had just rejected a request from Timothy Klausutis to delete one of the president’s tweets asking whether Scarborough might have killed Lori Klausutis, his late wife, who worked as Scarborough’s assistant when she died suddenly at work in 2001 from an undiagnosed heart condition.
Twitter’s decision to allow the mendacious macro-aggression to stand raised eyebrows and ire, backlash that may have spurred the company to take the unprecedented step last Tuesday of adding fact-check advisories to two of Trump’s tweets that called mail-in ballots “fraudulent” and predicted that “mail boxes will be robbed.” The advisory reads: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” There is a link that takes users to a page that reads, in part, “Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to ‘a Rigged Election.’”
Trump predictably responded by attacking Twitter, accusing the company of interfering in the 2020 election by “saying my statement on Mail-In Ballots, which will lead to massive corruption and fraud, is incorrect.” In another tweet he declared that: “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”
On Thursday, Trump went on the offensive, signing an “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship” that seeks to limit legal protections for social media companies. Specifically, it’s an attack on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which ensures that social media platforms are protected from their own users’ posts. The measure was enacted before the social media era in 1996 in order to safeguard online platforms against being held liable for what people post on them. But Trump apparently sees Section 230 as an impediment to free speech.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly,” Trump said while announcing the executive order at the White House. “A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States… We cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey on the internet.”
Like so many of his tweets, Trump’s executive order seems more like a bully’s tantrum than anything else. Legal experts note that the order does not change any existing laws and has no bearing on the federal judiciary.
The next day Twitter struck the next blow in the back-and-forth battle after Trump tweeted the old Jim Crow line, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The president blew hard on the racist dog whistle by calling black protesters THUGS, in all-caps red meat for a base boiling with bigotry. Donald Trump doesn’t do subtlety. And Twitter was having none of it this time. It placed a warning over the tweet — which was still viewable to those who wished — explaining that it “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”
It was a welcome move from a company that has been highly hesitant to police Trump’s often outrageous, sometimes dangerous, tweets. But that wasn’t all. Twitter also blocked users from liking or replying to Trump’s offending tweets. But it did not remove them.
As with most of his decisions, civil libertarians and digital rights advocates condemned the president’s order. “President Trump’s executive order targeting social media companies is an assault on free expression online and a transparent attempt to retaliate against Twitter for its decision to curate (well, really just to fact-check) his posts and deter everyone else from taking similar steps,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based digital advocacy group, said in a statement. “The good news is that, assuming the final order looks like the draft we reviewed on Wednesday, it won’t survive judicial scrutiny.”
Trump even managed to piss off librarians — here’s part of a statement from the EveryLibrary Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes, among other things, information literacy:
The Executive Order (EO) recently signed by President Trump is an attack on the First Amendment as well as online expression. In addition to being rash and without reason, this EO also stems from President Trump’s petty grievances with Twitter for fact-checking one of his recent egregiously ineffectual tweets. This EO is vague, and hastily drafted, and contains a number of legal and judicial fallacies. This EO is likely meant as a warning to social media companies to deter them from taking similar fact-checking steps. Ultimately, instead of strengthening the First Amendment, this EO will undoubtedly weaken its protections.
You know you’ve stepped in it when you’ve riled up the librarians!
Something tells me we haven’t yet seen an end to the Trump-Twitter feud. Watch this space, although to be honest there are much more pressing problems in the world right now and it’s time we take a closer look at some of them.
(Image credit: Dunk/Flickr Creative Commons)