President Trump is expected to sign an executive order Thursday targeting social media companies such as Twitter, escalating his feud with the technology platforms he relies on to amplify his political messages in an election year.
Although the president has limited power to modify federal rules without an act of Congress, he could ramp up pressure on social media companies with lawsuits and regulatory reviews.
Trump’s sparring with Silicon Valley has become another battle in the 2020 election, as conservatives complain that their voices are not heard and liberals demand greater efforts to flag deliberate falsehoods and disinformation — especially from the president.
The White House action comes two days after Twitter angered Trump by adding a disclaimer to his tweets falsely claiming mail-in ballots lead to widespread voter fraud. Even though the company did not delete his tweets, the president accused it of censorship.
“Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election,” he tweeted Wednesday night. “If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!”
The president’s order, which could still be modified before it is signed, aims to modify the scope of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that protects internet companies from liability for content posted by users.
If a social media platform edits content — apart from restricting posts that are violent, obscene or harassing — “it is engaged in editorial conduct” and “forfeits any protection” under the act, according to a draft version of the executive order that was posted online by Kate Klonick, a professor at the St. John’s University School of Law in New York.
The executive order would direct Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to request new regulations from the Federal Communications Commission to determine when a company is acting “in good faith” to limit content.
That could open the door for users to sue social media platforms if they feel their posts were restricted inappropriately.
It’s unclear whether such regulations would pass judicial scrutiny, and legal experts are skeptical given the wide berth given to social media companies to police their own platforms. Trump has a history of using executive orders to make political statements when his authority is limited.
The White House also could collect complaints about alleged online censorship and other unfair practices, then forward them to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission for possible legal action.
More pressure could come in courthouses around the country. U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr would work with state attorneys general to determine whether companies are violating any state laws.
In addition, Trump would limit federal agencies’ spending on advertising on social media platforms. It was not immediately clear how much money could be affected.
Trump is a prolific user of Twitter, often tweeting or retweeting dozens of times a day. His reelection campaign uses an array of social media platforms to aggressively target voters for the November election.
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