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The White House issued a clarification on an executive order signed at the end of May to prevent online censorship. The clarification seeks to end moderation of users’ speech on social media platforms.

President Trump wants social media companies to stop altering users’ speech. On Monday, the White House released a clarification of Trump’s Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, which he signed at the end of May, in an effort to protect free speech for social media users.

The Department of Commerce, as directed by Trump, filed a petition to request that “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clarify that Section 230 does not permit social media companies that alter or editorialize users’ speech to escape civil liability.”

The petition will also request that the FCC clarify when online platforms curate content in “good faith” and that there will be transparency requirements on how online platforms moderate content.

“President Trump will continue to fight back against unfair, un-American, and politically biased censorship of Americans online,” the statement said.

What happened?

Back in May, Trump signed the Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship in an attempt to get platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to stop moderating content. The order notably came about after Twitter imposed fact-check labels on one of Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting. 

Most recently, Twitter penalized Donald Trump Jr. for posting misinformation about the effectiveness of masks and hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment the Trump administration heralded as a Covid-19 treatment despite cautions from researchers. Twitter ordered Trump Jr. to delete the tweet and suspended his ability to tweet for 12 hours.

“In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand pick the speech that Americans may access and convey on the internet,” the order said. “This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic.”

The executive order is a stab at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants online platforms immunity from liability for the content posted by their users, although many legal scholars point out that the order misdirected its aim; without Section 230, free speech would die. 

Twitter would need to remove any of Trump’s tweets containing misinformation if not for Section 230. His tweets that claim the protests over George Floyd’s murder were “professionally organized” and “have nothing to do with George Floyd,” his declaration that “it was me who shattered 100% of the ISIS Caliphate,” and his suggestion that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a staff member — all of these Twitter would remove.

The Cost of Free Speech

To many people, Trump’s call to defy censorship is a protection of hate speech on social media platforms. With the ability to moderate content, platforms can create a safe environment for their users and remove accounts or content that promote hate. 

A study from 2019 show that more than half of Americans say they experienced hate, with more than a third reporting severe attacks, including sexual harassment and stalking. There are legitimate reasons to take online threats seriously, as they can turn deadly and cause devastating harm. In 2018, a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 worshipers. The man accused of the crime, Robert Bowers, regularly expressed antisemitic views online and spread neo-Nazi propaganda.

At the start of July, major companies in the U.S. started a boycott of Facebook ads in a movement called #StopHateforProfit. Facebook is a platform guilty of promoting hate, racism, antisemitism, and violence, the campaign stated. More than 1000 companies take part in the boycott that is only growing stronger as activists in the U.S. call for participation from European firms. Facebook has not met with any of the campaign’s demands.

In recent months, people criticized platforms like Twitter and Facebook for the role they played in spreading misinformation during the 2016 election and their ability to majorly impact the outcome of elections. 

Twitter unveiled its civic integrity policy in May which prohibits users from “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.” Tweets spreading inaccurate information about civic processes or sharing content to suppress participation violate the policy and can be removed. It was through the civic integrity policy that Trump received his first fact-checking label on his tweet claiming mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud.

Facebook announced at the end of June that it would allow people in the U.S. to opt out of seeing political ads. The platform remains committed to its “newsworthiness exemption” clause which prevents it from moderating a user’s speech if that user is of public interest.

Mark Zuckerberg also announced an ambition goal for the platform: registering 4 million users to vote. He called it “largest voting information campaign in American history,” but with misinformation and hateful rhetoric still around on the platform, the challenge gets people to vote with knowledge. 

Zuckerberg will defend Facebook and its history of discrimination and suppression before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, alongside Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple Inc., and Sundar Pichain of Google in a historical antitrust hearing — a moment of reckoning for the tech industry.

Candy Chan

Candy Chan is studying History with a focus on War and Revolution at Barnard College. She is currently a staff writer at the Columbia Daily Spectator, covering issues pertaining to Columbia's...