In Depth

Donald Trump: should social media companies fact check the president?

Trump has gone to war with Twitter following the site’s push towards flagging false information

Donald Trump and Twitter have a long-standing love-hate relationship that, though fractious, has long seemed to work for both of them.

The US president exploits the social media platform to broadcast his opinions to millions of people worldwide, while Twitter has exclusive rights to publish the inner monologue of the most powerful person in the world.

Now though, their relationship may be coming to an end, after Trump yesterday signed an executive order limiting protections for social media giants. The US president stepped up his attack on big tech companies after promising “big action” in response to Twitter announcing that they would begin fact-checking his tweets.

Why Trump fell out with Twitter

Twitter updated its policy on “misleading information” earlier this month, in an attempt to limit potentially harmful and false news spreading on its platform. The new system allows Twitter to put a warning notice on tweets to make it clear they could contain false information.

When Donald Trump tweeted this week the false claim that “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent”, Twitter stepped in.

The social media site put a warning label on two tweets, linking to a page that described the claims as “unsubstantiated”. 

On a page titled “what you need to know”, Twitter says that Trump “falsely claimed mail-in ballots would lead to ‘a Rigged Election’... Fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud”.

Trump fired back by accusing Twitter of interfering in the US presidential election scheduled for November. He said the company was “completely stifling free speech, and I, as president, will not allow it to happen”, warning the platform to “clean up your act now”.

Adding fuel to the flames of their dispute, Twitter then said that Trump had “violated rules about glorifying violence” in another tweet by posting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in relation to the unrest in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd.

What does the executive order mean?

The order clarifies the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a US law that offers online social media platforms legal protections in some situations.

Before the CDA, US communications firms had two options, says The Guardian. They could act as “mere conduits”, passing on all content submitted to their platforms without editing or filtering - like a phone service - and avoid legal liability. Alternatively, they could moderate their platforms and take legal responsibility for all content contained on it.

A later amendment - section 230 of the CDA - created a legal exception that allowed platforms to moderate their sites without taking legal liability for the content that they allowed (or that slipped) through the net.

It says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

But Trump’s new executive order says that this legal immunity does not apply if a social network edits content posted by its user, says the BBC. Twitter called the order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law,” adding that Section 230 “protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it's underpinned by democratic values”.

Google said that undermining Section 230 would “hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”

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What are the pros of fact checking social media?

Twitter’s argument for fact checking content on its site is that misleading content can be “harmful”, especially when it risks undermining important messages like expert public health advice.

In a world where false information can get you killed, “accuracy is key for many facing life-or-death situations”, says digital activism group Exposing the Invisible. “In the face of all of this, verification becomes crucial and a key tool for many, from human rights organisations to media outlets to the general public.”

One of the key drivers behind Twitter’s plan to introduce fact checking was concern over posts sharing false information to do with the coronavirus outbreak.

Fact checking “could help slow the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus,” says The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “Research shows that, when people correct misinformation on their social media feeds, misperceptions decrease.”

What are the cons?

Fact checking, labelling and removing content from political figures is akin to limiting their free speech, argue some - including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Zuckerberg has said. “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say.”

Facebook followed its founder’s comments by announcing in October that it would allow politicians to run ads on its platforms, even if they include misinformation, says CNBC.

But in December, Instagram - owned by Facebook - expanded its fact-checking process, adding “new warning labels added to all posts, globally, which share false information, as determined by third-party experts”, says Social Media Today.

The social media giants are also not in agreement on this issue. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey hit back at Zuckerberg’s latest comments, saying: “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make.

“This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth’. Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

One problem with fact checking is that there are often grey areas - especially in politics. Social media giants could be put “in the difficult position of playing political referee”, says Social Media Today.

But, it adds, “saying that those outliers are an impediment to implementing such process at all seems like a stretch”.

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