Trump to target social media with executive order

US President Donald Trump's administration and congressional Democrats were close to reaching agreement on a multi-billion-dollar interim package to fund loans to small businesses that have been devastated by the coronavirus crisis. AFP/JIM WATSON

After long resisting calls to censure Trump over his frequently unfactual posts, Twitter on Tuesday flagged the president for the first time for making false claims.

US President Donald Trump was set on Thursday to target social media giants like Twitter, which he accuses of bias against him, with an executive order opening them to new regulation.

“This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!” Trump said on Twitter.

The wording of the executive order remained under wraps. A White House spokeswoman on Wednesday said only that it would be “pertaining to social media.”

But Trump is on the warpath against Twitter after the platform for the first time labelled two of his tweets, on the increasingly contentious topic of mail-in voting, with fact-check notices.

Although he is the dominant US political presence on Twitter and Facebook, a fight with social media also plays into Trump’s narrative ahead of his difficult November reelection battle that liberal forces are trying to censor Republicans.

Leaked versions of the executive order in US media suggest that Trump will seek to remove liability protections that the social media giants enjoy over content they publish, thereby opening them to legal action and more government oversight.

One consequence of this could be to punish the companies over their decisions on what to allow and what to restrict on their platforms.

A draft of the order reported by CNN accuses platforms of not showing the “good faith” required under their current self-regulating status.

It attacks online platforms for damaging free expression by being able to “hand-pick the speech that Americans may access.”

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden accused Trump of “bullying” social media companies into airing his “misinformation campaigns” and playing “host to his lies.”

In any case, resetting the boundaries of how the mammoth companies operate would likely hit immediate legal and political roadblocks.

The constitution “clearly prohibits the president from taking any action to stop Twitter from pointing out his blatant lies about voting by mail,” Kate Ruane, at the American Civil Liberties Union, said.

A wider debate has long been under way on the power that social media companies wield and what responsibility they bear for posts that are misleading or hurtful.

Internet services like Twitter and Facebook have been struggling to root out misinformation, while at the same time keeping their platforms open to users.

The massive amount of unverified content in circulation has prompted a rise in fact-checking operations, including a vast Facebook effort in which AFP plays a role.

After long resisting calls to censure Trump over his frequently unfactual posts, Twitter on Tuesday flagged the president for the first time for making false claims.

Trump had tweeted — without any evidence — that more mail-in voting would lead to what he called a “Rigged Election” this November.

Twitter’s slap on the wrist was enough to drive Trump into a tirade — on Twitter — in which he claimed that the political right in the United States was being shut out.

Thursday’s order, according to unnamed White House officials quoted by The New York Times, will make it easier for federal regulators to argue that the companies are “suppressing free speech when they move to suspend users or delete posts.”

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg waded into the row, telling Fox News that his social network — still the biggest in the world — steers clear of fact-checking political speech.

“I just believe strongly that Facebook should not be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said in a snippet of the interview posted online Wednesday by Fox.

Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey fired back on Wednesday night, saying that his platform’s effort to point out misinformation did not make it 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,” he tweeted.

He doubled down on the new policy, writing: “Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me…. We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally.”

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