May 29, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump's big, empty beef with Twitter

Illustration of a Trump Tweet

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump finally acted on his now year-old threat to take action against social media platforms for alleged bias against conservatives. But so far, according to experts in both government and the industry, the threat looks mostly empty.

Driving the news: Trump escalated his war on Twitter Friday morning, tweeting repeatedly that the company needs to be regulated after it overnight added a warning label to a tweet of his calling for the military to start shooting looters, which violated Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence.

Trump's problem, as laid out by Axios' Jonathan Swan: He knows how essential Twitter (along with Facebook) is to his political success. He's mad at Twitter for fact-checking and placing a warning label on some of his messages. And he's frustrated that he can't bring Twitter to heel by executive fiat.

  • The order is what Trump's team, with Attorney General Bill Barr on point, came up with to placate the president after his fury over Twitter's fact check on a false claim he tweeted about mail-in ballots in California.

The order is a grab-bag of regulatory half-measures and legal Hail Mary passes that the White House weighed and then shelved last summer, only to dust them off again.

  • Less a practical policy framework than a battle cry intended to stir Trump's legions of "keyboard warriors," it isn't likely to change the law, but could still heat up the fight.
What the order is not:

It's not a credible legal strategy for overturning the protection from liability that online service providers won almost 25 years ago, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

  • Trump wishes he could do this, but only Congress can. And even though there are critics of social media among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, it's highly unlikely there will be consensus on whether and how to amend Section 230, and even unlikelier it'll be repealed altogether, as Trump now wants.

It's not a well-crafted regulatory effort to bring the platforms under the sway of the FCC and the FTC.

  • Experts and some agency insiders are skeptical that the FCC will embrace the order's request that it find ways to limit Section 230's sway. (The FCC isn't even mentioned in Section 230.)
  • The order also asks the FTC to use its power to police deceptive practices against social media platforms that apply their content moderation rules inconsistently or with alleged bias. But that's not a realm the FTC has ever policed.

It's not much of a business threat to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest.

  • The order tells the Office of Management and Budget to review government spending on advertising on these platforms.
  • No company likes to lose revenue, but even pulling every federal dollar from social media firms would hardly put a dent in their bottom lines.
What the order is:

It's an effort to cow Twitter, along with other platforms, from going further down the fact-checking road.

It's also a way for the White House to change the subject, for a news cycle or two at least, from a grim pandemic with a staggering death toll.

Most important, it's a way of firing up Trump's online troops, for whom perceived platform bias has been a longstanding grievance.

What's next: The executive order calls for a half-dozen different reviews, requests and working groups — including one for the states, convened by Barr, to get creative about cracking down on "unfair and deceptive acts and practices" by online platforms.

  • If the order makes any policy headway, Trump can claim victory.
  • If, as is more likely, it hits roadblocks in the agencies and the courts, Trump can blame "the swamp" and "the Deep State" and reap fresh bushels of partisan outrage.
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