Earlier this month, social media giant Twitter announced a new policy countering unchecked misinformation and harmful content spread on its platform. This week, it began implementing the new policy on the highest stage possible—warning users against President Trump’s reckless and unsubstantiated claims.
First, Twitter fact-checked Trump’s false claims on mail-in voting leading to voter fraud. It linked users to reporting on mail-in voting and voter fraud from a variety of sources. A few days later, they warned users against Trump’s tweet glorifying government violence against citizens as people around the country protested the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. None of Trump’s tweets have been deleted. They now simply feature a warning label.
The new actions provide an antidote to the rampant spread of misinformation on social media, as well as how such platforms sew outrage and polarization throughout society. In contrast, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, responded “I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth.”
President Trump retaliated swiftly enacting an executive order limiting social media platform’s broad legal protections. It is unclear whether this executive order is enforceable.
Social media platforms have completely revolutionized the way we communicate with one another and what types of messages get amplified. In decades past, to get a wide audience, one would need to go through major news outlets and therefore carry some expertise, credibility, and sense of balance. With social media, the messages that provoke the most outrage get the most likes and shares. Users are therefore incentivized to deliver increasingly outrageous speech in order to get their message out into the world.
Some sort of check on these problematic incentives is long overdue. I think Twitter for now has struck a reasonable balance, providing data and reporting that refutes clearly false, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims, while stopping short of deleting the tweets in questions. Meanwhile, Facebook, continues to shirk accountability, radically changing the landscape of speech in our society, without doing much to counteract its amplification of harmful speech that incites violence and undermines our democracy.
This is good news.
But I also think Trump’s executive order might be seen as good news in a sense as well. Of course, I have no faith that Trump’s action came from a desire to govern effectively or promote more sane and fruitful dialogue across our society. Rather, I think he uses his executive order as retaliation against enemies to serve his own political purposes. Regardless, social media companies probably should have less protections for the negative effects of their platforms. Perhaps Trump’s order will be a precursor to more effective, meaningful checks on these companies in the future, especially those who refuse to take action on their own.