The list of controversies involving US President Donald Trump is quite extensive, and 2020 has added a good many items on it. From his apparently “inadequate” response to the novel coronavirus to his mediations on reformatting G7, Mr. Trump has been a frequent face on the front pages of national and international news publications. The recent face-off of Trump with Twitter has sparked heated debates over the issues of free speech and media liability, and he has once again succeeded in making it to the front-page headlines.
The US Presidential elections are due in November, and with the risk associated with mass gatherings owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the state of California put in efforts to expand mail-in voting. Mail-in voting requires voters to register themselves to receive a voting ballot via mail, which they can fill up and send in their vote by post. Naturally, many other states too viewed mail-in voting as an effective measure to minimize health risks and followed California’s example.
On 26th May, President Trump posted two tweets, challenging the authenticity of mail-in ballots, and claiming them to be “substantially fraudulent”. Twitter labeled these posts as “potentially misleading” and attached links to news articles giving information on this method of voting. This was the first time Twitter has put a fact-check label on Mr. Trump’s posts. Not surprisingly, the latter reacted to this “insult” by launching an offensive against the platform, saying that by partnering with “Fake News CNN and the Amazon Washington Post” to fact-check his posts, Twitter is curbing free speech. The White House even stooped as low as to target Twitter’s head of Site Integrity, Yoel Roth, and harassing him personally on national television.
On 28th May, as retaliation against Twitter “curbing free speech”, President Trump also signed an executive order to roll back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This section, passed in 1996, provides legal immunity to interactive online communications services for the content that users post on these platforms. This protects these platforms from lawsuits when a user posts something illegal, or if the platform bans or does not ban a particular account. The order also directs government agencies and authorities to scrutinize these platforms more closely, and review spending on advertising online. If this order is passed, it would give the US government immense control over interactive platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
It might have appeared that Trump’s executive order would scare Twitter off, but the platform took an even bigger step against the President the next day, by hiding one of his tweets. The President posted a tweet on 29th May calling the demonstrators at Minneapolis “thugs” and threatening military intervention. Twitter labeled this tweet as “glorifying violence” and hid it, inviting further wrath from the White House. However, this move gained Twitter appreciation from the public and encouraged Facebook employees to demand the company to remove the same post from their platform. The employees of Facebook, in fact, staged a virtual walkout to express their discontent over their employer’s lack of action on the issue.
Meanwhile, the first legal lawsuit was filed against the President’s executive order. The plaintiff, the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT) claims that Trump is using the executive order as a retaliatory measure, and not to deter Twitter from misusing its freedom. Other critics claim the terms of the order as being unconstitutional. Instructing these interactive platforms when they can moderate and intervene in amounts to limiting their free speech, which goes against the First Amendment to the Constitution. Execution of the order would mean that the government would gain control over the actions of not just Twitter, but also Facebook, Youtube, and other such websites. They can then ban any account that opposes them and promotes those that support them. This will eventually lead to the end of free speech on the internet.
The latest event which added fire to the feud was when Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram removed a Trump campaign video on grounds of copyright violation. The video, titled “Healing Not Hatred”, was a tribute to George Floyd, the African American man who was killed when a police officer mercilessly choked him to death. The video featured an image owned by another individual, who then filed the copyright complaint, after which the video was taken down. Mr. Trump called this action by the social platforms as “illegal”.
For the last decade, Donald Trump has had a good relationship with Twitter. It has been a platform for him to air his views, to vent out his anger, to fire his staff and so much more, that have gained him an enormous follower count of 80 million people. This is not the first time that the President has posted something that is offensive, misleading, or downright maniacal; but it is the first time that Twitter has raised a voice against him. Trump has never been penalized by Twitter for wrongfully accusing a renowned journalist of murder, or for the numerous times he has used words like “clown” and “dummy” to describe known personalities for criticizing him. The company finally drew the line at his tweet on mail-in ballots, which is nowhere as misleading or offensive as some of his other posts.
Why did Twitter not flag his previous posts? Why did they start calling the President off for his lack of professionalism now? What led Twitter to finally stand up against its friend of so many years past and risk earning his wrath? These are questions nobody knows the answer to; but the fact that there is someone who can finally hold the President responsible for his views and challenge them, albeit a little late, is encouraging. It also shows Donald Trump that he cannot go on using these platforms as a personal journal where he can vent off his own feelings and frustrations.
The President already has enough pressing matters on his plate, but his emphasis on satisfying his personal grudge against Twitter has only earned him more disfavor among the public, and this general feeling of discontent will very likely make itself felt in the upcoming Presidential elections.