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President Donald Trump has used his Twitter account to spread an array of claims and conspiracy theories since well before he was president.
In recent years, there have been repeated calls for the president to be banned from Twitter, and the social media platform has received criticism for not curtailing Trump’s activities.
But this week, Twitter took action by fact-checking two tweets in which Trump claimed mail-in ballots would increase voter fraud, despite little evidence to support his assertion. The act immediately became a partisan issue, with Trump and his supporters decrying it as censorship, and his critics saying Twitter hadn’t gone far enough.
On Thursday, Trump responded with an executive order (EO) that appears to be a retaliatory action against Twitter, as well as any other platform that would challenge his statements.
Trump is fact-checked by Twitter
The latest controversy began with a pair of May 26 tweets in which Trump railed against the use of mail-in ballots, claiming that if they are used, “Mail boxes [sic] will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a widespread effort to allow all Americans to vote by mail in the 2020 election.
Trump’s tweet is now accompanied by a blue warning message from Twitter: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” Clicking the link opens a page with the headline, “Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud.” It goes on to state:
“On Tuesday, President Trump made a series of claims about potential voter fraud after California Governor Gavin Newsom announced an effort to expand mail-in voting in California during the COVID-19 pandemic. These claims are unsubstantiated, according to CNN, Washington Post and others. Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.”
Trump and Republicans have repeatedly warned that Democrats will attempt to “steal” the election through fake votes, but even conservative research has found that occurrences of voter fraud are very rare.
Trump responds to being fact-checked
On Wednesday, May 27, Trump responded with indignation to the fact-checking of his tweets, and objected to Twitter’s citing of CNN and The Washington Post, both outlets he has repeatedly called “fake news.”
In the second part of a two-tweet thread, Trump exclaimed, “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox News on Wednesday to publicly criticize Yoel Roth, Twitter’s Head of Site Integrity. Roth has been critical of Trump and his voters on Twitter in the past. In addition to criticizing Roth for political bias, Conway spelled out his Twitter handle in an apparent suggestion that Trump supporters should swarm his account.
Later that evening, Trump tweeted a video segment of Fox News host Lou Dobbs discussing Roth’s alleged bias.
The executive order
On Thursday morning, The Washington Post confirmed reports that had been swirling around since Wednesday: Trump was planning on signing an executive order that “could threaten punishment against Facebook, Google and Twitter over allegations of political bias.”
Trump alluded to the EO in a Thursday morning tweet: “This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!”
It was not the first time Trump had turned to Twitter to announce a policy, but it was unusual because the order, beyond updating government policy, appears to serve as an act of personal retaliation.
Prior to signing the “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship" Thursday night, Trump stated that his purpose was to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.”
He added, “A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States. They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences."
What does the executive order say?
Much of the text of the Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship expresses the White House’s view that social media companies in general, and Twitter in particular, are censoring users based on their political views.
“When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree,” the order reads, “they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators."
The EO singles out Twitter as “selectively decid[ing] to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias."
The EO directs Attorney General William Barr to investigate claims of censorship and directs heads of government departments to review their advertising campaigns on social media sites.
However, the most controversial section of the order involves directing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review a legal code that pertains to free speech on the Internet. The specific provision is referred to as Section 230 (§ 230). Trump’s EO amends this portion of US law, which deals with civil liability for service providers and websites.
Section 230 states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Essentially, any site that allows users to upload content is free from legal prosecution for that content.
The EO would theoretically end that protection.
Section 230 was originally included in the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) that was intended to restrict speech on the internet. Much of the act was later struck down by the Supreme Court, but Section 230 has remained intact, at least until Thursday.
Ironically, considering Trump’s assertion that Twitter is restricting free speech, the executive order has already been accused of violating the First Amendment by a current and former commissioner of the FCC.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees citizens’ freedom of speech cannot be impeded by the government. However, social media platforms like Twitter are private companies and US courts have consistently maintained that the companies can be the arbitrators of what appears on their platforms, assuming the content itself doesn’t break established US laws.
Twitter’s public interest notice
Apparently undeterred by Trump’s EO, on Friday morning, Twitter’s official communications account, @TwitterComms, added a “public interest notice” to one of Trump’s tweets:
“This Tweet violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”
The Trump tweet in question was a response to the ongoing unrest in Minneapolis, which has broken out in response to the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Trump said he would send in the military to control the situation, then added, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Todd Zwillich, Deputy DC Bureau Chief for Vice News, explained via Twitter that the expression, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” is actually a quote from former Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, “who promised violent reprisals on black protesters in 1967” during the Civil Rights protests.
Trump’s use of Twitter
Trump has been a regular user of Twitter since nearly its inception. Throughout the administration of President Barack Obama, Trump regularly used his account to criticize him and spread the conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya, not the US.
This May, Trump has used his account to spread two different conspiracy theories. The first, known as Obamagate, alleges that Obama and his loyalists actively worked to spy on and sabotage the incoming Trump administration.
Throughout the month, Trump has retweeted dozens of other accounts that have used the #Obamagate hashtag.
Trump has also been spreading the unfounded rumors that MSNBC host, Joe Scarborough, murdered an intern, Lori Klausutis, in 2001 after having an affair with her. He has called it an “unsolved mystery.”
In reality, the coroner’s report found that Klausutis had an undiagnosed heart condition that led to her falling while at the office and hitting her head on a desk. There is no evidence to suggest that Scarborough had anything to do with Klausutis’ death.
None of the tweets related to these conspiracy theories have been fact-checked by Twitter.
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