May 27, 2020 - Technology

Trump has turned Big Tech's speech rules into a political football

Illustration of the Twitter bird logo coming out of President Trump's mouth as he speaks

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Twitter made headlines Tuesday after labeling two election-related tweets from President Trump as potentially misleading — the company’s first action against the president’s tweets, which often test its policies on misinformation and abuse.

The big picture: Twitter's unprecedented move, which swiftly drew Trump's fury, was just one of four controversies over the last 24 hours involving tech platforms grappling with free speech issues. And all of them, Axios' Sara Fischer and I report, reflect what a partisan issue the policing of social media content has become.

Driving the news:

  • California's postal balloting: Trump falsely suggested that all residents of California were being sent ballots (only registered voters will get them) and that anyone would be able to vote, even non-citizens. Because Trump's tweets, per Twitter spokesperson Lindsay McCallum, "contain potentially misleading information about voting processes," Twitter affixed a message to them pointing users to a fact check.
  • Scarborough's staffer: Twitter said Tuesday it won't remove Trump's tweets baselessly suggesting MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have murdered a congressional staffer in 2001. It issued a statement saying it was "deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family," but said Trump's tweets didn't violate its rules.
  • Facebook's "divisive" system: The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that internal research at Facebook found its platform was exacerbating extremism rather than bringing people together, but executives opted against taking action, in part out of fear of alienating U.S. conservatives. Facebook executive Guy Rosen took to Twitter to take issue with the Journal story.
  • YouTube's China censorship: YouTube came under criticism by Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey for deleting comments that appeared to be critical of China. YouTube said the move was an error, but others say the issue is widespread and, according to The Verge, dates back to October. GOP Sen. Josh Hawley pressed Google CEO Sundar Pichai for an explanation in a letter Wednesday morning.

Be smart: In each of these cases, questions of how platforms should treat controversial speech instantly became questions of what political statement any action (or inaction) by the platform would make.

  • "Whose side are we taking?" became at least as important a question as, "How fairly and consistently are we applying our own rules?"

The Trump factor: The president has been at the center of many of these controversies since taking office, posting or resharing messages that include falsehoods, conspiracy theories and personal attacks, often in apparent violation of platform rules.

  • Twitter’s action to label the vote-by-mail tweets, though unprecedented, was still a mild rebuke, with the company simply pointing people to a Twitter "moment" consisting of articles discussing the tweet and its errors.
  • Meanwhile, the company rejected a call from the Scarborough staffer's surviving husband to delete Trump's tweets on that matter.
  • Facebook, for its part, left Trump's vote-by-mail comments up without comment.

Yes, but: Trump and some allies are pointing to Twitter's action as evidence to support their longstanding claims that tech platforms are biased against conservatives.

  • The president tweeted Tuesday night: "Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election.... Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!"
  • He doubled down with more tweets this morning: "Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen."

Reality check: Trump can neither tell Twitter what to do nor unilaterally shut the company down. But the threat of regulation and investigation is more substantial, and his allies in Congress can try to pass laws to change its practices.

  • The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Trump was "considering establishing a panel to review complaints of anticonservative bias on social media."
  • And Hawley and fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio both argued the fact check means Twitter should lose its liability from lawsuits over user-posted content, a sweeping change that would require an act of Congress.
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