Without social media, it’s likely that Donald Trump would never have been elected president. After all, without Russian bots pushing highly targeted propaganda on Facebook using data passed to them by Trump campaign manager and convicted felon Paul Manafort and the free publicity garnered through Trump’s Twitter posts, his thin margin of victory in a handful of swing states may never have happened.
Now, in what many see either as an attempt to prevent anyone else from replicating his strategy or else as a way to pressure major tech companies to cease the removal of offensive extremist right-wing posts, the Trump administration is circulating a draft of an executive order that — according to civil liberties groups — would censor the internet in an attempt to bite the hand that fed its own success, Politico reports,
The draft order — which Politico learned about from “a White House official and two other people familiar with the matter” — calls for the highly politicized Federal Communications Commission to develop new regulations clarifying how and when the law protects social media websites when they decide to remove or suppress content on their platforms with an aim of addressing Trump’s demonstrably false claims that conservative viewpoints are being suppressed online.
“If the internet is going to be presented as this egalitarian platform and most of Twitter is liberal cesspools of venom, then at least the president wants some fairness in the system,” one White House official told Politico. “But look, we also think that social media plays a vital role. They have a vital role and an increasing responsibility to the culture that has helped make them so profitable and so prominent.”
The administration is cloaking its own censorship efforts in the guise of protecting free speech as the title of the draft order — “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship’ — indicates by alleging that the censorship is already being conducted by the social media platforms themselves.
CNN called the order “a significant escalation by President Trump in his frequent attacks against social media companies over an alleged but unproven systemic bias against conservatives by technology platforms. And it could lead to a significant reinterpretation of a law that, its authors have insisted, was meant to give tech companies broad freedom to handle content as they see fit.”
The debate has been raging in both Silicon Valley and in Washington DC over whether social media companies should be simply “dumb pipes” that bear no responsibility for the content that their users post on their platforms or whether — and how — they should police that content for socially harmful content and remove it.
The current situation finds the companies uncomfortably straddling an unclear line of acceptable online conduct — monitoring the posts on their platforms while removing items that violate their published terms of service in what is often an unevenly enforced set of not fully-stated and often shifting rules.
The difference between non-governmental companies enforcing their own terms of service and the FCC doing the same task of determining what is and is not acceptable content to publish lies in the First Amendment which prohibits the government from making laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Critics of the administration’s draft executive order were shocked that the White House was making this constitutionally dubious effort to police social media.
“I bet you scores of conservatives are turning over in their grave right now listening to all of these big government approaches,” Senartor Ron Wyden (D-OR) said. “Their proposal today amounts to nothing short of a speech police.”
Free speech advocates also chimed in with devastating assessments of the Trump administration’s approach to the issue of social media regulations. The non-profit writers’ organization PEN America denounced the draft order on a devastating tweet.
If this accurately reflects resulting EO, it's an anti-American edict that would empower FCC & FTC to be viewpoint-based arbiters of online speech. Thankfully, 1st Amendment forbids that. It's regrettable that this Administration doesn't seem to know that. https://t.co/uKNqE6UKD4
— PEN America (@PENamerica) August 9, 2019
Digital rights group Fight for the Future was equally critical of the order. Evan Greer, the deputy director of the organization said:
“It’s hard to put into words how mind-bogglingly absurd this executive order is. In the name of defending free speech, it would allow mass government censorship of online content. In practice, it means whichever party is in power can decide what speech is allowed on the internet.”
The organization posted a tweet that cleverly pointed to the future one might expect if the order was enacted.
The ██████ White House just ██████ leaked a draft executive order ██████ that would ██████ give the government the power ██████ to censor the Internet. █████████ We have to stop it before it's ██████. https://t.co/mQCoL86ifA
— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) August 11, 2019
While it’s unlikely that the courts would allow Trump’s internet censorship order to stand, the very fact that such a move is being considered shows how ardently this administration is pushing the boundaries of the implementation of authoritarian policies that defy constitutional norms.
It’s just one more reason why this president must be removed from office as soon as possible.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.
Original reporting by Margaret Harding McGill and Daniel Lippman at Politico, by Brian Fung at CNN, and by Jon Queally at Common Dreams.