Aug 10, 2020 - Technology

Tech's reluctant road to taking on Trump

Animated illustration of wiggling Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat with a delete button

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and a looming election have brought long-simmering conflicts between tech platforms and President Trump to a boil, as Facebook, Twitter and other services are starting to take presidential misinformation seriously.

What's happening: Wary of becoming arbiters of political speech, tech's platforms have carved out a range of exceptions and immunities for Trump and other political leaders — but that accommodation is coming undone.

The big picture: Trump has leveraged the vast reach of social media for years to promote his messages, stir up his followers, and often misinform the public. His Twitter account is his megaphone, and Facebook and YouTube are at the heart of his digital advertising strategy.

Driving the news: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have now drawn red lines around certain kinds of information — in particular, deceptive messages about voting and inaccurate statements about COVID-19 — and started enforcing them, sometimes even against Trump.

  • Facebook and YouTube removed a video post from Trump's campaign last Wednesday in which he falsely told Fox News that children are "almost immune" to COVID-19.
  • Twitter took action against the same Trump video post later on Wednesday evening. It suspended the president's campaign account (@TeamTrump), which had posted the video, until the campaign took it down.
  • It's the first time either platform had taken steps to fully remove a post shared by the president.

Yes, but: So far the action hasn't prompted a response from Trump — perhaps because the post originated from his campaign account rather than his personal "@realDonaldTrump" handle, which retweeted it.

Timeline: Here's how the tech platforms arrived at this moment.

  • March 5: Facebook said it was taking down campaign ads from President Trump that encouraged people to "take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today," after initially indicating it would not take action against them. Census misinformation is one "red line" for the social network.
  • May 29: Twitter added a warning label to a Trump tweet that advocated shooting looters during racial justice protests, which violated Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence.
  • June 3: In response to that same tweet, Snapchat said it would no longer promote President Trump's account on its "Discover" page of curated content.
  • June 18: Facebook took down an ad from the Trump campaign that criticized antifa and leftist groups and included a prominent display of an inverted red triangle in a black outline, a symbol the Nazis used for political dissenters.
  • June 29: Reddit banned its controversial subreddit channel r/The_Donald, a longstanding hub of support for President Trump, along with 2,000 other subreddit groups and users that were in violation new content policies aimed at hate speech.
  • June 29: Twitch issued a temporary suspension of President Trump’s channel "for comments made on stream."
  • August 5: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter removed the video where Trump claims kids are “almost immune” to COVID-19. Twitter suspended President Trump's campaign account until the post was removed.

Be smart: The new willingness to challenge the president is coming only as Trump's presidency is weakened by a deadly pandemic and an economic meltdown.

  • In the early days of the Trump administration, some outside observers and tech company insiders held out hope that the newly inaugurated president would ditch the campaign-trail name-calling on Twitter and turn more "presidential."

Between the lines: Critics say Facebook, fearful of bias charges, bends over backwards to protect conservatives from being penalized by its policies.

  • New evidence supporting that case emerged Friday with reports on BuzzFeed and NBC suggesting that conservative media outlets and activists used a fast track to reverse adverse content moderation decisions.

What's new: CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been outspoken in his opposition to COVID-related misinformation. In overstepping Facebook's rules on that front, Trump and his campaign seem to have finally triggered some reaction.

  • In an earnings call last week, Zuckerberg criticized the federal government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying it could have been handled better, and adding there is "no end in sight" to working from home for employees.
  • Zuckerberg also hosted a Facebook Live event last month with NIAID director Anthony Fauci amid the disease expert's increasingly icy relationship with the White House.

Facebook's response extended beyond Trump and the Trump campaign to some of his fringe allies as well.

  • The social network Thursday removed hundreds of accounts tied to The Epoch Times, a media organization associated with Falun Gong that's pro-Trump and anti-China and often pushes conspiracy theories through ads.
  • Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and others have recently pushed to suspend far-right QAnon conspiracy accounts.
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