Facebook and some members of the Federal Communications Commission appear to be helping President Trump in his war against Twitter as he pushes for unfettered speech and less content moderation online.
Yet tech industry experts say that Trump’s fight to revoke a law that protects websites from being held liable for content posted on their platforms could backfire on him and cause more censorship and content moderation, not less.
“Facebook and the FCC are helping Trump make his argument. At the moment, they’re overlapping on this,” said Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University.
Twitter, for the first time last week, decided to place fact-checking and warning labels on a few of Trump's tweets, setting off a political firestorm. The Trump campaign said the move showed "clear political bias" by the tech giant, and Trump signed an executive order last week to combat what he described as unfair censorship.
Twitter's social media rival Facebook has taken a very different approach to Trump's content, despite having similar content moderation policies as Twitter. Facebook has not applied any of its standard fact-checking labels to Trump's posts, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg implied Twitter's decision to fact-check the president was wrong. Zuckerberg said Facebook does not want to be an “arbiter of truth.”
A Twitter spokeswoman pointed the Washington Examiner to a Twitter thread posted earlier this week to explain its rationale for labeling Trump’s tweets.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, said that Facebook and Twitter have arrived at a “fork in the road" on content moderation and are headed in opposite directions.
"It’s [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey’s instincts versus Mark Zuckerberg’s. Zuckerberg has, for a long time, had a stronger instinct for free speech,” said Carr. “I think Zuckerberg’s instincts have been right.”
Some tech industry experts see Facebook’s decision as politically and financially motivated, though.
“In the face of pressure to follow the White House's preferred speech policies, Facebook chose appeasement, and Twitter chose to fight,” said Daphne Keller, director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford University.
“Maybe Facebook thinks it has more to lose by alienating Republicans," she said.
Gigi Sohn, a former FCC adviser and a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, said that Facebook gets a lot of ad revenue from Trump, while Twitter does not, which makes Twitter less dependent on Trump's approval. Furthermore, Facebook is under antitrust scrutiny from Trump’s Justice Department.
She added that Facebook puts itself in the position of “arbiter of truth” because its algorithm determines what people see and don’t see, and it often takes down content, just not posts created by politicians.
“Facebook moderates content, but they just don’t want to do it with political content. They are an arbiter of truth when they want to be, but not when it will hurt their bottom line and their political standing,” said Sohn.
Zuckerberg defended not labeling or censoring Trump’s content as a matter of openness, even though he said personally he had a "visceral negative reaction" to Trump's "divisive and inflammatory rhetoric."
“People can agree or disagree on where we should draw the line, but I hope they understand our overall philosophy is that it is better to have this discussion out in the open, especially when the stakes are so high,” said Zuckerberg in a post on Facebook.
Carr said that Trump’s executive order requires his agency to look at where to “draw the line in the sand” when it comes to the conduct of social media platforms and how they moderate content. Carr said the order asks the agency specifically to interpret and clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed by Congress in 1996. The law says online platforms are not to be held legally responsible for what their users post.
It is this protection that has enabled websites to flourish, from social media platforms to news sites and educational resources such as Wikipedia. Critics on both sides of the aisle, though, have said in the past few years that the law gives tech companies too much power and not enough responsibility when they have so much influence over peoples' lives.
Carr's fellow Republican commissioner at the FCC, Mike O'Rielly, agrees with Carr that Trump has the right to seek review of Section 230, but Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel disagrees, saying that Trump's executive order would turn the commission into "the president's speech police."
Carr said that reforming Section 230 has been a bipartisan issue in the past few years but has become politicized in the Trump era. He cited the example of former Vice President Joe Biden, who has said Section 230 should be revoked immediately but also criticized Trump’s Section 230 reform proposals.
“For a lot of people, their North Star is if the orange man said it, it’s bad,” said Carr.
However, Tucker, the New York University professor, said Section 230 is a big part of the reason social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have succeeded. He said that if social media companies were suddenly made liable for their user’s content, much more content would inevitably be removed.
“Revoking Section 230 would incentivize Twitter and any social media platform to moderate more content because of lawsuits that will occur and their responsibility to shareholders,” said Tucker.
Revoking the Section 230 law, which Trump has expressed a desire to do, would not happen at the FCC’s hands. Only Congress can repeal the law. However, Carr sees a pathway for the law to be clarified by the FCC in a manner that results in more speech but less content moderation.
“I could see a world in which there’s less content moderation and people can filter out more information for themselves,” said Carr.
Carr’s personal philosophy is “more speech is always better than less. More is better than less.”