Posted on May 29, 2020

Trump Signs Executive Order Targeting Social Media

John D. McKinnon and Rebecca Ballhaus, Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2020

President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday seeking to limit the broad legal protection that federal law currently provides to social-media and other online platforms, a move that is expected to draw immediate court challenges.

The order seeks to make it easier for federal regulators to hold companies such as Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. liable if they are deemed to be unfairly curbing users’ speech by, for example, suspending their accounts or deleting their posts.

Mr. Trump signed the order after Twitter on Tuesday moved for the first time to apply a fact-checking notice to tweets by the president on the subject of voter fraud.

Twitter early Friday attached a public-interest notice to a tweet from Mr. Trump about the violent protests in Minneapolis in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. The social-media company said the tweet violated its rules about glorifying violence but allowed users to access it via a link.

Speaking in the Oval Office Thursday as he prepared to sign the order, the Republican president accused Twitter of acting as an editor “with a viewpoint” and described the platform’s fact-check of his tweets as “political activism.” He said he would delete his Twitter account “in a heartbeat” if he felt the news media were fair to him.

“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” the president said. He acknowledged the order would likely be challenged in court, but said: “What isn’t?”

Mr. Trump, who frequently posts on Twitter and has more than 80 million followers on the platform, said that, if his lawyers could find a way to legally shut down Twitter, “I would do it.”

Shares of social-media companies fell on Mr. Trump’s comments. Twitter lost $1.47, or 4.5%, to $31.60. Facebook shares fell $3.68, or 1.6%, to $226.46.

The order seeks to scale back sweeping legal protections that Washington established for online platforms in the 1990s, in the internet’s early days. Those protections were created by Congress in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

In a post late Thursday, Twitter described the executive order as “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law.” It said Section 230 protects innovation and freedom of expression, and that “attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.”

Facebook on Thursday said that repealing or limiting section 230 would “restrict more speech online, not less” and “would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”

Google also criticized the executive order on Thursday. “Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. The company enforces its content policies without regard to political viewpoint, she said.

Twitter’s action on Mr. Trump’s tweets Tuesday marked the first time it had applied a fact-check label to tweets unrelated to coronavirus. The company has since put fact-check labels on others’ tweets about other subjects.

Attorney General William Barr, speaking alongside the president, said the Justice Department would draft legislation for Congress on curtailing social-media companies’ liability protections, which Mr. Trump said could include proposing to “just remove or totally change” Section 230. Mr. Barr said the executive order would return the federal law to its intended scope.


The order will likely be challenged in court, experts said, on grounds that it oversteps the government’s authority in restricting the platforms’ legal protections, which federal courts have interpreted broadly. It also could be challenged on grounds that it violates their First Amendment protections.


The order is far-reaching in scope, setting up multiple ways for the government to attack what the administration views as the problem of online censorship. {snip}


Given the legal and regulatory challenges involved, it would likely be months before any actions proposed in the executive order would take effect on social-media platforms. For now, the initiative casts Mr. Trump as fighting for the rights of his base against a tech-industry establishment that his supporters widely view as biased in favor of liberal positions.

Trump administration officials have been discussing the executive order in various forms since 2018, as the president grew increasingly frustrated with tech companies, people familiar with the discussions said. In recent weeks, those discussions have picked up again. In mid-May, Mr. Trump tweeted that the “Radical Left” was in “total command & control” of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google and said the administration was “working to remedy this illegal situation.”