President Trump escalated his war on social media networks yesterday, raising the existential question of whether they should be held responsible for the sometimes false and ugly content they carry.
There’s little question that Trump is punching back against Twitter’s decision to slap a fact-check label on two of his tweets about voting by mail, and channeling the longtime frustration among conservatives about bias.
Trump unloaded on the tech companies’ “monopoly” as “one of the greatest dangers” to free speech, saying these firms have “points of view” and “unchecked power” to engage in censorship.
It’s obvious that the president relishes this fight in the midst of a campaign, and at a time when the coronavirus has now claimed more than 100,000 American lives. But that doesn’t mean he’s not raising a valid issue.
It’s a bit odd that Jack Dorsey’s company chose to make its stand against presidential tweets warning that widespread mail voting will lead to massive fraud and a “rigged election.” Many Republicans as well as Democrats see that as way overstated, but it was a partisan forecast, and in my view acceptable political rhetoric. Twitter didn’t help itself by pinning its “potentially misleading” findings on CNN, NBC and the Washington Post, outlets that Trump and his allies view as hostile to him.
But Dorsey took no action against Trump’s Twitter tirade promoting an unfounded conspiracy theory about the 2001 death of a young aide in Joe Scarborough’s Florida congressional office. Trump is demanding that the so-called cold case be reopened, although Scarborough was in Washington when Lori Klausutis died in what police ruled an accident. Yet Dorsey ignored a heartfelt letter from her husband Timothy, who said the tweets were forcing him to relive the agony of her death.
My coverage on Fox is quoted in a New York Times story yesterday that observes that the network didn’t cover the uproar over Scarborough in prime time Tuesday, but there has been no shortage of criticism from conservative editorial pages, and even a few Republicans such as Liz Cheney.
A Wall Street Journal editorial called Trump’s accusation against the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” “is ugly even for him…Mr. Trump always hits back at critics, and Mr. Scarborough has called the President mentally ill, among other things. But suggesting that the talk-show host is implicated in the woman’s death isn’t political hardball. It’s a smear…
“Mr. Trump is debasing his office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.”
The New York Post, which like the Journal and Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, editorialized: “We suppose there are some Trump followers who enjoy this. The libs say horrible things about you, go ahead and say terrible things about them! There is a difference, though, between mocking someone’s ratings and hurting an innocent family with the memories of their tragic daughter because of a petty feud…
“Is that really the president you want to be, sir?”
And a Washington Examiner editorial said “President Trump’s crazed Twitter rant on this subject was vile and unworthy of his office. Some will undoubtedly shrug it off as Trump being Trump, but one could hardly be blamed for reading it and doubting his fitness to lead.”
Twitter’s problem is that, unlike Facebook, it’s never wanted to spend the money to fact-check misinformation and libelous posts, so it seems like it’s singling out Trump. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, who’s had mixed results with truth-squadding, told Fox’s Dana Perino he disagreed with Twitter’s move: “I just strongly believe that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”
But the larger problem for such social media outfits is that they cling to the fiction that they’re just neutral platforms, rather than some of the world’s most powerful media companies. Their users provide them with a tidal wave of free content, and if some of it is disgusting, well, too bad. That’s why Russian propagandists in particular were able to exploit Facebook in 2016.
In his executive order, which will probably wind up in court, Trump would tackle so-called “selective censoring” by weakening the legal immunity that Twitter, Facebook, Google and the rest enjoy for all that free content posted by their users. This, of course, is the heart of their business model. It would push these social media firms into substantial spending to police their content–something that some on the left believe they should have been doing all along.
“They want two things–no regulations and no taxes,” Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “And so they cater to the Trump administration all the time…They only have a business model to make money, not to convey facts.”
After Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg broke with Twitter by telling Fox’s Dana Perino that he didn’t want to be an “arbiter of truth,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey hit back. He said his approach “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.”
Dorsey also pushed back on reports that his standards chief, Yoel Roth, had called Trump and his team “actual Nazis,” along with other epithets. The president said yesterday–on Twitter, of course–that Roth is a “hater.”
The Twitter boss said “there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me. Please leave our employees out of this.”
Even if you believe that Trump’s order is nothing but a political maneuver, it does shine a spotlight on this question: Isn’t it time for these Silicon Valley giants to be responsible for their toxic sludge?