The upcoming election explains why Donald Trump is so eager to fight against any attempt to constrain his freewheeling use of social media © Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Tweeter-in-chief Trump hands Facebook and Twitter a gift

US president’s proposed executive order against social platforms has stirred up outrage — and engagement


If outrage is the business model of social media, then president Donald Trump has just handed the shareholders of Twitter and Facebook another gift.

This week’s threat from the tweeter-in-chief to clamp down on alleged bias in social media is certainly ominous. But, based on the executive order that Mr Trump signed on Thursday, the chances of any serious change to how the platforms operate are low, while the anger it has stirred up on both sides is already paying off in terms of soaring online engagement.

It is not just the social media that thrives on division: the president himself has turned it into a governing philosophy. Casting the most powerful information platforms of the age as part of the biased “lamestream media” is guaranteed to rally Mr Trump’s base around even his most dubious contentions.

It is not hard to see why this unseemly symbiosis of US presidential politics and online media has just taken a turn for the worse. A presidential election is coming up, and the stakes are going up for all concerned — not just the president and the social media platforms, but democracy itself. As things stand, it is democracy that looks most in danger.

If there was ever a time for Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s thoughtful but diffident chief executive, to end his Hamlet impersonation and take a stand against his most famous user’s casual disregard for the truth, this was it. In attaching fact-checking labels to two of Mr Trump’s tweets earlier this week, and then censuring another for “glorifying violence”, he appears to be trying to draw a line in the sand over how Twitter will deal with election misinformation emanating from the White House.

Tuesday’s tweets claimed, without evidence, that postal ballots are vulnerable to extensive fraud. For the president to use untruths to undermine confidence in what may well be the safest way to vote during a pandemic could play havoc with the election process. The fact that Mr Dorsey has finally intervened shows he realises how high the stakes have become.

The election timing also explains the unseemly haste with which Mark Zuckerberg has broken ranks with Mr Dorsey and denounced the idea of internet platforms trying to police political speech. After his network’s role in Mr Trump’s first victory, the Facebook chief is deeply sensitive to anything that might reek of election interference this time around.

And it is the oncoming election that explains why Mr Trump is so eager to fight back against any attempt to constrain his freewheeling use of social media. Cowing powerful media outlets during an election season is a favourite tactic of incumbent politicians everywhere. No surprise that an earlier draft of his executive order also took a swipe at Google, which has also faced allegations of anticonservative bias, though the clause was absent from the final version.
Despite rightwing attacks, there has been no independent research to support claims of anticonservative bias © Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

This week’s fight with Twitter has brought an old White House proposal — drafted last year but never adopted — back to the fore. Its central aim was to limit the freedom of internet companies to block or restrict content, something they are able to do under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But it also goes much further, including asking state-level attorneys-general to challenge social media companies under their fair trading laws, and reducing federal advertising. One thing guaranteed not to happen is any curtailment of the Trump campaign’s own heavy spending on social media. 

All of this might sound like it spells serious trouble for the likes of Twitter and Facebook. But despite persistent rightwing attacks, there has been no independent research to support claims of anticonservative bias.

Facebook subjected itself to the theatre of a year-long review, led by former Republican senator Jon Kyl, into allegations from the right. The resulting report last year ended up as simply a catalogue of unsubstantiated complaints from conservative interest groups.

Taking the pragmatic stance that has characterised its dealings with the current administration, Facebook made the appropriate noises about taking it all very seriously and tightening up on its policies. No one paying attention, though, would have missed that this was just an elaborate political dance.

Also, the White House’s preferred route for clamping down is fraught with legal and political difficulties. Not the least of these is trying to make the Federal Communications Commission the hammer for a new form of online content regulation: the agency’s defining action over the internet during the Trump years has been to forswear a strong regulatory role by ending net neutrality.

To seriously crimp the freedom of Twitter to tamper with his tweets, Mr Trump will have to show that the company has not been acting in “good faith”, as required by section 230. But as long as it limits its intervention to such brazen untruths as the president’s messages on postal voting, this hardly feels a serious threat.

There are certainly risks for the social media companies. Some government advertising may go elsewhere. There are likely to be more lawsuits and regulatory investigations over how they interpret their own user rules. Repressive governments elsewhere will feel more free to block or limit online media they disagree with.

But one thing is guaranteed: Mr Trump himself will not be spending less time on Twitter.