For the first time in his Presidency, Twitter has labeled two Tweets from President Donald Trump “potentially misleading”, clipping his Tweets with a fact check and linked curated articles from CNN and the Washington Post underneath a message reading “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” In these Tweets, Trump criticized California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order requiring mail-in ballots to be sent to every registered voter. Claiming “this will be a Rigged Election,” Twitter decided to take it upon themselves to dispute his argument by citing their “fact-checkers.”
Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough told CNN Business in an email “These Tweets contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots,” and that “this decision is in line with the approach we shared earlier this month.” Trump fired back shortly after, believing the company “is interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and “stifling FREE SPEECH.” Twitter did confirm this instance marks the first time the company stepped in to label any of Trump’s Tweets as “misleading”.
Obviously, the implications behind this staggering move by Twitter could be devastating to freedom of speech on social platforms. Now, the limitations of First Amendment rights and where the line should be drawn regarding freedom of speech, specifically, on social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook has been a uniquely Trump-era conversation. Obviously, freedom of speech as a whole has never been uncontentious as a political topic but with the explosive rise of platforms as primary sources of public information and Trump’s rather antagonistic presence on Twitter brought the debate into social media’s powers of restricting freedom of speech based on a company’s individual visions.
With two-thirds of the nation receiving their news off of social media, a verdict of how much social media can filter out “fake news” (or, at least, what they deem to be “fake”) and disagreeable political commentary would eventually have to be reached. Protections have been long established to prevent social media platforms from liability of their users’ statements and content laid out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
With these protections from liability for misinformation or offensive posts allowed the meteoric ascension of social media, building a playground for free discussions and commentary that these platforms built themselves on. So Facebook’s response of “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true” to complaints towards the doctored video of “drunk” Nancy Pelosi that circulated on Facebook a few months ago should universally apply to social media platforms.
However, held within Section 230(c)(2), social media companies are also exempt from liability for efforts to censor or curate content “in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” Congress intended for these protections to allow social media platforms to foster a more family-friendly environment on the internet but have instead been twisted into concerning overreaches into the free exchange of information with overt biases, conflating certain political views as “otherwise objectionable”.
Such unparalleled protections assumed Big Tech would operate as impartial platforms of information and would refrain from unfair curation and favoritism. However, if a social media platform acts as “publishers” employing powers to moderate and control the speech on their platform, they would then relinquish the protections within Section 230, an unparalleled legal gift. The distinction between publisher and platform must be determined to grant these prerogatives yet Big Tech like Twitter pretends to exist as both, enjoying Section 230’s exclusive immunity from litigation for open platforms and curation powers of a publisher.
The past few years have exhibited how little Big Tech behold themselves to the necessary neutral standards to earn Section 230’s protections. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained to podcaster Sam Harris Twitter does not “optimize for neutrality” when moderating speech. Though not specifying which values Twitter prioritizes, moves such as suspending the account of the pro-life movie “Unplanned” on its opening weekend hint at trends conservative have been calling Big Tech out for years. Attempting to undermine Trump’s Tweets with fact checks, though unprecedented, shouldn’t be seen as anything more than another episode in a long saga of their anti-conservative bias.
Claims that Big Tech discriminates against conservatives has existed within social media for years now but has been reliant almost entirely on the anecdotal. Dozens of examples can be found but the companies’ incessant denial of such bias allows the hypocrisy to be rationalized and subsequently ignored. So when Sarah Jeong, a former editorial writer for The New York Times, posts dozens of messages expressing hatred for white people without punishment and Twitter suspends conservative activist Candace Owens who copied her Tweets and substituted the word “white” with “Jewish” in 2018, the Left can whisk the bias away as a “mistake” or an “isolated incident”. Or when Twitter refused to sanction Kathy Griffin after she called for her followers to dox the Covington High School students who were falsely accused of harassing a Native American activist but will ban Laura Ingrahm for reporting the usage and promise of the drug hydroxychloroquine in fighting coronavirus.
However, a study from Columbia University’s Richard Hanania found that, between 2015 and January of 2019, 21 out of the 22 prominent, politically active individuals who expressed a preference in the 2016 Presidential election suspended on Twitter supported Donald Trump, finally cementing hard data into the nebulous allegations of anti-conservative bias. While these claims may sound a tad whiny to some (though incredibly unfairly and should be taken seriously), the implications held within social media’s powers to handpick content from users while pretending to be free platforms should be terrifying. We have entrusted our information into the hands of faceless Big Tech overlords, overlords with blatant allegiances and ambiguous standards.
Of course, we don’t allow telephone companies to boot customers from their services due to their political views but social media platforms somehow get away with it. Social media platforms may rightfully possess curation privileges in reference to obscene or harassing content but deserve no such protections of removal of political views, no matter how extreme. And Big Tech might understand this more than they let on. Instead of outright banning Trump or deleting his Tweet, a move that would ultimately reveal their bias, tagging a fact-checker allows Twitter to openly oppose his Tweet, thus curating content uploaded on their site, without explicitly entering into publisher territory.
But will Twitter fact check any Tweet that accuses Trump of Russian collusion? Or a Tweet defending the prosecution of General Michael Flynn? Did any Tweet demanding justice for Jussie Smollett or inciting violence against the Covington Catholic boys receive a fact check? As much as Twitter may say otherwise, their fact-checkers are simply another tool to continue silencing conservative voices on their platform. It was never about providing the facts.
This limbo that social media platforms exist within must come to an end. A defined line in the sand must be drawn or else Big Tech will continue to have dominion over the free wells of information. And, as demonstrated in their fact-checking of Trump’s Tweets, their creativity has allowed them to slip through the legal cracks of Section 230. Movements within Congress to amend such protections, led by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), have already begun but such glaring instances of bias from Big Tech must continue to be fought. The very presence of civil political discourse on social media depends on it.