The Trump administration is drafting an executive order to ban “anti-conservative bias” on social media, according to Politico. The report quotes three anonymous sources, including one White House official, saying that the plan is still nebulous and in its early stages. It supposedly “deals with other topics besides tech bias,” though it’s not clear what those are. But it’s a sign that Trump wants concrete action on a subject he’s been complaining about for years — and a move that might conflict with Trump’s recent request for more aggressive policing of potential violence on social media.
What is Section 230?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”
Trump said last month that the White House would “explore all legislative and regulatory solutions to protect free speech and the free speech of all Americans.” The official, however, put it in more clearly partisan terms: “If the internet is going to be presented as this egalitarian platform and most of Twitter is liberal cesspools of venom, then at least the president wants some fairness in the system.” Trump and others have complained when social media platforms have banned or limited conservative accounts, although this sometimes includes the accounts of unabashed white supremacists, and we don’t know if conservative accounts get suspended disproportionately.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) already introduced a bill that would strip companies of key legal protections unless the Federal Trade Commission declared them politically “neutral.” (This is probably unconstitutional.) Even leaving aside constitutional questions, an executive order couldn’t go as far as that bill. Politico suggests it might look like an earlier order demanding free speech on college campuses, which was essentially redundant. The White House declined to comment on the record to The Verge.
But if the Trump administration is trying to spook social media platforms out of moderating conservatives, it’s putting them in a difficult position — because after a pair of mass shootings this weekend, Trump also said social media companies should “develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”
“Most of Twitter is liberal cesspools of venom.”
One shooting was apparently an act of far-right terrorism, based on an anti-immigrant screed posted online. There was a fine line between its rhetoric and the views of major conservative figures like Tucker Carlson or Trump himself. Preemptively flagging the shooter — or one of several far-right killers before him — could have looked like egregious anti-conservative bias. And since predictive AI has sky-high error rates, it would probably catch a lot of non-violent conservative accounts (alongside those of non-conservatives) purely by accident. That’s already a recipe for a PR disaster, and it gets even dicier if Trump adds new legal punishments.
The official told Politico they didn’t see a problem. The platforms “have a role, if not a responsibility, to monitor the content on their sites to ensure that people aren’t threatened with violence or worse, and at the same time to provide a platform that protects and cherishes freedom and free speech, but at the same time does not allow it to descend into a platform for hate,” they said. But that’s assuming there’s an easy definition of “hate” — and it simply doesn’t exist.