President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday designed to limit the legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for the content users post on their platforms.

What they're saying: "Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they are a neutral platform, which they are not," Trump said in the Oval Office. "We are fed up with it. It is unfair, and it's been very unfair."

The state of play: The order comes after the president escalated his attacks against Big Tech in recent days — specifically Twitter, which fact-checked him for the first time this week over an unsubstantiated claim that mail-in voting drives voter fraud.

  • The president and many on the right have long alleged that tech platforms police conservative viewpoints more heavily.
  • The Trump administration convened conservative critics of social media platforms for a social media summit last year focused solely on this topic.
  • But an Axios analysis last year found that stories about the 2020 presidential election that drove the most engagement online often came from right-wing media outlets.

The big picture: The order focuses on a portion of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, which grants broad liability protections to tech platforms from civil suits when it comes to what users post, and would direct the Commerce Department to press the Federal Communications Commission to create new regulations aimed at pulling back that shield.

  • It also asks the Federal Trade Commission to report on acts of political bias collected by the White House. Attorney General Bill Barr said that the administration is preparing legislation as well.
  • The Trump administration has long mulled reining in Section 230, and the Justice Department convened a workshop earlier this year on the topic. Trump said he expects the executive order to draw a lawsuit.

Reality check: Despite this executive order, the president does not have unilateral power to regulate tech companies and social media platforms.

  • This week a federal appeals court, ruling in a case brought by conservative activists against social media companies, affirmed that private websites are not public spaces and social media companies don't have First Amendment obligations.
  • Any truly strong limits to Section 230 would almost certainly require action by Congress.
  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in a series of tweets Wednesday that he would introduce legislation to strip platforms of their protections if they offer what he described as editorializing.

Worth noting: Section 230 has long had critics on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, who argue that it allows platforms to shirk a societal responsibility to keep harmful and false information from spreading online.

  • Its authors wanted to make it clear that online services could actively moderate their users' content without assuming liability for it, though platforms still must police things like copyright violations.
  • Among Democrats, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff cited deepfake videos last year as a key issue that called Section 230 protections into question, arguing that tech companies need to "exercise a proper standard of care when it comes to a whole variety of fraudulent or illicit content."

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