Trump executive order: President seeks review of law covering social media companies

As the president ramps up his feud with social media companies, Twitter's Jack Dorsey says he's "ultimately accountable" for decisions the company makes.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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President Donald Trump
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President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump is pushing back against social media companies after his tweets were fact-checked.

James Martin/CNET

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that targeted social media companies, a move he telegraphed after Twitter fact-checked the president's tweets on mail-in ballots for containing "potentially misleading misinformation."

The executive order doesn't change how Twitter, Facebook or other social media companies operate. Rather, it calls on the government to review federal law that protects online companies from liability for content posted by users, according to a draft of the order. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from 1996 covers company responsibility for content posted by users.

News that Trump would sign an executive order concerning social media companies began to spread on Wednesday. The president amplified anticipation of the action with a Thursday morning tweet. "This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!" he tweeted.

Trump's action highlights the growing tensions between the world's largest social networks and conservatives, which has come as the companies crack down on misinformation. Twitter and other social media companies have repeatedly denied they suppress conservative speech.

"Much as he might wish otherwise, Donald Trump is not the president of Twitter," said ACLU senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane in a statement before the executive order was signed. Ruane said the order would be "a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president."

Other experts questioned if government agencies will follow through with the order.

Marty Lederman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, tweeted that "it's hard to imagine the FCC will do anything" with the executive order.

The FTC and FCC are independent agencies so experts say it would be up to them to decide whether to carry out Trump's executive order if it's signed. Robert McDowell, a former Republican commissioner at the FCC, tweeted that "this speech control is #unconstitutional."

The FCC didn't comment on the draft order. But commissioners appear to be divided.

"Social media can be frustrating. But an Executive Order that would turn the FCC into the President's speech police is not the answer. It's time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment. History won't be kind to silence," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted on Thursday.

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said in an interview with Fox News that if a company like Twitter decides "to engage in partisan political debates" and directly take on the president then that "raises questions about whether they should get special treatment."

Read more: Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and the fight for social media's soul

The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Trump is considering creation of a commission to investigate social media for supposed bias against conservative views. The executive order has reportedly been reworked several times in recent years, sources told the newspaper.

The signing of the executive order caps a week in which the president used social media to make  clear his mounting exasperation with social media. Trump has previously accused social media sites of being biased against conservatives, and the White House launched a website that let people report social media accounts they suspected of being banned due to political bias. 

On Wednesday, Trump said in a tweet that Twitter "has now shown that everything we have been saying about them (and their other compatriots) is correct." 

A day earlier, Trump tweeted to his more than 80 million followers that "There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-in-Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent," a claim that has been debunked by fact-checkers and news organizations. He continued his remarks in another tweet, stating that it will be a "Rigged Election." 

In a rare move, Twitter then added a label to Trump's two tweets because they contained "potentially misleading information about voting processes."

A label appears under both tweets that reads: "Get the facts about mail-in ballots." Clicking on the warning notice directs people to a page explaining that fact-checkers say there isn't any evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud. The same remarks also appeared on Facebook but the company didn't send the post to its third-party fact-checkers.

"I don't think Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Fox News on Wednesday. Political speech, he added, is already heavily scrutinized. Zuckerberg also said in the interview that he still has to see what the president plans to do, but he thinks that "a government choosing to...censor a platform because they're worried about censorship doesn't exactly strike me as the...right reflex there."

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey responded to criticism directed at Twitter executives, saying that he's "ultimately accountable" for the company's decisions. He denied Twitter is an "arbiter of truth."

"Please leave our employees out of this," Dorsey tweeted late Wednesday. "We'll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make."

Social media giants have faced losing their protection under a re-examination of Section 230 before. In June 2019, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, introduced the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which would remove tech companies' automatic immunity.

A month later, representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter testified in a congressional hearing that their respective companies made mistakes on what content gets published, but that they aren't censoring with a political bias.

Twitter, Google and Facebook declined to comment. Snap and TikTok didn't respond.