Is there a right to misinform?

Twitter, Trump, and the new fight for free speech

ThinkTech Seminars
Jul 23, 2020 · 7 min read

Juliana Dauchess

What happens when Twitter and Facebook detect fake news on their platforms? Are they obligated to label misinformation or should that be the domain of independent users? A recent row between Trump and Twitter provides a good opportunity to reflect on these questions.

A new debate about free speech on social media was ignited in Washington in May of 2020 when Twitter slapped a misinformation label on a tweet by President Trump, in which Trump discouraged Americans from using mail-in ballots due to concerns over coronavirus, claiming that they would lead to a fraudulent election. Here’s the president’s tweet:

To counter this misinformation, Twitter added a banner to his tweet that states, Get the facts about mail-in ballots. The link brought users to a page in which they called the president’s claim “unsubstantiated” and “confusing”, and provided a What you need to know box with three bullet points explaining that:

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This move enraged Trump, who later tweeted his support for signing an Executive Order that would regulate the ability of social media companies to police the content hosted on their platforms.

For many years, the Twitter Rules guided the company in decisions about how to handle questionable content that was uploaded to the site by influential users. Interestingly, Twitter would often cite the newsworthiness exemption tag for controversial tweets of prominent individuals because the company maintained that the public should know what world leaders are thinking.

When the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the United States in March of 2020, all social media companies were forced to reexamine their content policies to assure that dangerous misinformation was not being spread that would damage users’ health. Twitter updated its policy to allow the company to remove tweets that contradict “guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.” This new policy allowed Twitter to delete tweets from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that encouraged dubious COVID-19 cures.

Trump’s tweets have long been viewed as toeing the line between cyber-bullying and the exercise of free speech. Now it appears that Twitter is again seeking to expand its content policing power in order to label and dispute President Trump’s tweets even beyond the realm of coronavirus-related messages. According to The Washington Post, Twitter executives engaged in a lengthy discussion about “how to classify [Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots] under the company’s current policies… They debated whether the tweet constituted misinformation that has the potential to cause harm, or is a form of harassment.” By attaching the misinformation warning to the president’s tweet, Twitter made an effort to deliver all relevant information to the public while effectively sidestepping the uproar that would result from removing Trump’s message.

Facebook vs. Twitter: Freedom or Responsibility?

Twitter’s decisive action on President Trump’s tweets made news around the world, but Facebook’s reaction received much less attention and scrutiny. This is notable because Facebook hosts the same message from Trump about mail-in ballots on its site and yet has taken no steps to address the misinformation. A company spokesman, Andy Stone, asserted that they “believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote.” Stone means to say that Facebook has determined that it is the duty of the platform’s users to identify misinformation and correct it on their own through discussion and debate.

While Twitter is also allowing Trump’s tweets to remain on the site, the company’s executives are trying to take a more conservative approach to free speech. Twitter referred to an earlier policy in which it stated that the company would “take steps to make sure the tweet is not algorithmically elevated on our service, to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these tweets.”

The difference between Twitter and Facebook’s reactions reveals the root of the debate about the extent of free speech on the internet, which will shape the digital landscape for years to come.

What has angered President Trump and many of his supporters are the discrepancies in Twitter’s fact-checking.

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The company has established that it will allow world leaders’ tweets to remain public but it is being selective in regards to which tweets it will add labels to if they violate the Twitter rules in some way. For example, Twitter labeled Trump’s mail-in ballot tweet as containing misinformation but did not act on various other tweets of the president that also contain dubious information. Critics are claiming that the company’s decision to mark one tweet and not the other is unfair.

However, it is important to note that Twitter does not have as many resources as the other social media giant, Facebook, which employs third-party fact-checkers to review all questionable content on an equal scope. Twitter’s inability to equally apply their regulations to all content has enabled Trump to claim that the company unfairly has a bias against conservatives and censors their content. This is the divisive rhetoric that has spread throughout the United States in recent weeks and has sparked a heated debate.

Who regulates whom?

In response to Twitter’s increased surveillance, Trump threatened action with an Executive Order. The proposed measure would ensure that the social media giants are responsible for the content hosted on their platforms. This would effectively force Twitter, Facebook, and the like to police content because they will not be immune from legal action due to offensive content. Trump’s Executive Order aims to create a legal standard for neutrality that would prohibit social media sites from amplifying certain political viewpoints while stifling others, thus preventing political bias. As The Washington Post reported, “Trump’s directive chiefly seeks to embolden federal regulators to rethink a portion of the law known as Section 230…[which] spares tech companies from being held liable for the comments, videos and other content posted by users on their platforms.”

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Section 230 has long been a topic of debate because it shields tech companies from the need to regulate the content on their sites because they are protected by law. However, because the social media sites have long been permitted to regulate their platforms without fear of lawsuits, critics claim that these companies have been emboldened to deny responsibility for damaging content such as hate speech or terrorist propaganda. Trump’s proposed Executive Order would encourage lawmakers to investigate the extent to which tech companies could deny liability for their content.

This is a potential change that could drastically alter the social media landscape and the role of free speech on the internet. Additionally, the order would serve as a stimulus for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether social media companies hold true to their position of neutrality when regulating the speech on their platforms, prohibiting them from supposedly silencing conservative voices.

An Ongoing Debate

President Trump’s public spat with Twitter raises the larger question of the regulation of free speech on social media platforms. Twitter has effectively named itself the guardian of the public interest as it picks and chooses which messages to censor or modify on its platform. A new era of information control is beginning where we must ask ourselves:

Do social media users have the right and responsibility to debate misinformation by themselves?

Or should big companies step in and label what they believe to be misinformation?

It is true that, by erasing words and videos from their platforms, social media companies might as well take books out of citizens’ hands at the public library. Regulation of speech is a slippery slope that can quickly become a manipulation of thought. While hostility towards Big Tech is well-founded on privacy and other concerns, it is vital that these sites remain open and welcoming to all voices. If Twitter is emboldened to not just modify Trump’s tweets but also those of the average man, it will have gained a great power that should not lie in the hands of one company or board of directors. Despite its many setbacks, the internet is still a place for free discussion that should remain wide open to any user, no matter their status or title.

Social media is the 21st century’s public forum. It is a virtual, rather than physical, space where citizens can openly debate and exchange views. This is a forum that should be protected to the fullest extent of the law. Because users are the individuals who are active on social media sites, they should be able to express themselves freely. They are the ones who have the responsibility to debate misinformation and determine what should be removed.

Social media companies have, for many years, striven to avoid the role of arbiter but now, with Twitter’s fact-checking, they will enter a field of uncertainty without existing laws or regulations. Social media platforms cannot claim to be the guardians of public interest because the freedom of speech requires personal responsibility to be assumed for the consequences of one’s speech. When Twitter becomes the referee, it strips the users of their own responsibility and the need to make amends for their own false statements. This issue has surpassed tweets about mail-in ballots or the coronavirus, and now we must consider the future of our free expression. Stay tuned!

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Somos una comunidad de universitarios de distintas disciplinas. Escribimos sobre tecnología y su papel en el presente y futuro de la sociedad.

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