President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order cracking down on "censorship" by social media sites, a move widely seen by critics as retaliation against Twitter's decision to slap fact-checking labels on the president's tweets.
The executive order targets companies granted liability protection through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under the statute, large social media companies cannot be sued for much of the content posted by others using their sites.
Without congressional action, however, there are limits to what Trump can do with the executive order. The president said Thursday that he would indeed pursue legislation in addition to the order.
Attorney General William Barr, who also attended the signing, said the Justice Department would seek to sue social media companies, saying the statute "has been stretched way beyond its original intention."
The order would push the Federal Communications Commission to set new rules on some websites' protections under Section 230. It would also encourage the Federal Trade Commission to take action against companies that engage in "deceptive" acts of communication, and it would form a working group of state attorneys general to review relevant state laws.
Barr earlier this year signaled the department's intention to look "critically" at the law, originally designed to allow growing technology companies protection. But critics of the law have argued it allowed social media firms to turn a blind eye to unlawful content. It is unclear, though, on what grounds the Justice Department might sue.
While Barr said that the president's order does not repeal Section 230, Trump added shortly after: "One of the things we may do … is remove or totally change [Section] 230."
The executive order came two days after Twitter, for the first time, added warning links to two of Trump's tweets, inviting readers to "get the facts." The tweets made a series of claims about state-led mail-in voting services, an issue Trump has railed against in recent weeks.
The labels, when clicked, led Twitter users to a page describing Trump's claims as "unsubstantiated."
"Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to 'a Rigged Election.' However, fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud," Twitter's fact-checking page said, citing reporting from CNN, The Washington Post and other news outlets.
Trump said Thursday that social media companies selectively choosing who to fact-check is tantamount to "political activism, and it's inappropriate."
Twitter on Thursday night called Trump's executive order "a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law, saying attempts to erode it "threaten the future of online speech."
Facebook issued the following statement Thursday evening:
"Facebook is a platform for diverse views. We believe in protecting freedom of expression on our services, while protecting our community from harmful content including content designed to stop voters from exercising their right to vote. Those rules apply to everybody. Repealing or limiting section 230 will have the opposite effect. It will restrict more speech online, not less. By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone."
Google also released a statement which said the company had "clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint."
"Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences," the statement said. "Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America's economy and its global leadership on internet freedom."
On Wednesday night, Trump lashed out — on Twitter — accusing the social media giant of "interfering" in the 2020 presidential election and trying to "CENSOR" him.
"If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!" Trump tweeted Wednesday night.
The president had earlier tweeted that "Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen."
While Section 230 has critics on both sides of the aisle, including apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has said he believes Section 230 should be "revoked," the executive order was swiftly panned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"The proliferation of disinformation is extremely dangerous, particularly as our nation faces the deadliest pandemic in history," Pelosi said in a statement.
"Clearly and sadly, the President's Executive Order is a desperate distraction from his failure to provide a national testing strategy to defeat COVID-19."
Social activists condemned the order as unconstitutional.
"Much as he might wish otherwise, Donald Trump is not the president of Twitter," said American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane after a draft of the executive order was made public earlier Thursday. "This order, if issued, would be a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president."
Still, the order had some supporters, including the Internet Accountability Project, a conservative opponent to Big Tech that is funded, in part, by Oracle.
"The social media platforms, regardless of whether or not they are bound by the First Amendment, should be held accountable to their end-users," said Rachel Bovard, senior adviser for Internet Accountability Project.
"There are many lawmakers looking to recalibrate the law in order to foster the accountability and transparency that achieves that goal. President Trump's Executive Order seeks those same ends."
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo, who has introduced legislation tackling section 230, took to Twitter to remind his followers of own battle with Big Tech, though did not address the President's order directly.
"Gotta remember that key to #BigTech dominance/monopoly is advertising, and how they have manipulated [section 230] to create behavioral advertising machine," he wrote.
Trump's opponents have long pressured Twitter to take action against his frequent, and frequently criticized, use of the platform. Of the 18,000-plus false or misleading claims Trump has made as president, more than 3,300 were made in tweets, according to The Washington Post.
Those calls for action reached a fever pitch this week, as Trump continued making baseless suggestions that MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough might have been involved in the death in 2001 of his former staffer when he served in Congress.
The staffer's widower asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to remove Trump's tweets on the matter. "I'm asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain," the widower wrote in a letter to Dorsey.
Twitter refused to delete Trump's tweets about Scarborough. But Dorsey on Wednesday defended his company's fact-checking labels, saying Twitter will "continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally."