Nearly an hour after midnight on May 29, US President Donald Trump filed his final tweet after a long day that saw the US death toll from COVID-19 cross 100,000 while the president escalated his stand-off with social media platform Twitter with an executive order that oculd affect their legal immunity.
Trump's tweet referred to the violent protests in Minneapolis over the killing of a 46-year-old African American man by a police officer who appeared to use disproportionate force. Several establishments had been set on fire including a police station as thousands of angry demonstrators took to the streets against George Floyd’s killing, prompting the state governor to call in the National Guard.
While Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide outrage over police brutality and reignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Trump’s tweet focused on the violence committed by protesters, calling them ‘thugs’ and implying that they would be shot.
“..These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Trump tweeted, before calling it a night.
Shortly after, Twitter flagged his tweet for ‘glorifying violence’, screening it behind a disclaimer stating that it had violated Twitter’s rules. It was an unprecedented move on the part of Twitter against the official handle on a sitting US President.
....These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
In a blog post, Twitter justified the action, linking to its policies for the same. While such tweets are usually deleted, under exceptional circumstances that involve tweets by a publicly elected official they may be kept up for public scrutiny with a disclaimer.
“We have placed a public interest notice on this Tweet from @realdonaldtrump,” Twitter’s official handle tweeted. “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”
“This Tweet violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today. You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence,” Twitter said.
Hours later, Trump responded, doubling down on his claim that Twitter was biased against Republicans. “Twitter is doing nothing about all of the lies & propaganda being put out by China or the Radical Left Democrat Party. They have targeted Republicans, Conservatives & the President of the United States. Section 230 should be revoked by Congress. Until then, it will be regulated!” Trump tweeted.
The move comes on the same day that Trump signed an executive order that would increase the liability companies like Twitter face for content posted on their platform. While such internet companies were earlier protected under Section 230, which protects intermediaries from being sued for libel for what their users post, the executive order removes this protection in instances where such platforms engage in moderation themselves in instances that can be considered
“Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate,” the order reads.
Platforms could now be treated as publishers and not neutral platforms, and would be open to lawsuits. The order makes a request to the Federal Communications Commission to clarify whether companies lose Section 230 immunity if they restrict access to material in “bad faith”.
“Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias. As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet,” Trump’s executive order read.
Twitter justified the decision to screen his tweet, saying, “We've taken action in the interest of preventing others from being inspired to commit violent acts, but have kept the Tweet on Twitter because it is important that the public still be able to see the Tweet given its relevance to ongoing matters of public importance.”
“As is standard with this notice, engagements with the Tweet will be limited. People will be able to Retweet with Comment, but will not be able to Like, Reply or Retweet it.”
Both Twitter and Google criticised the executive order.
“This EO is a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms,” Twitter said in a statement.
A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch that “Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”
Republicans have long accused internet companies like Google of harboring political bias against Conservative politicians. When Members of Congress pulled up Google CEO Sundar Pichai to testify on the same in 2018, he was asked why, among other things, Donald Trump’s image was among the first search results for ‘idiot’.
Asides from accusations of bias, the growing calls for internet companies to regulate fake news on their platform have left politicians like Trump at the frontline of their moderation policies. Media analyst David Markowitz had in a Forbes article estimated that Trump lied up to 23 times a day on average from the beginning of 2020 until early April. Over half of the fact-checks run by Politifact on Donald Trump led to results coming up as either “mostly false”, “false” or “pants on fire” [the highest level of misleading content].
Twitter’s move to mark one of Trump’s tweets with a fact-check warning was the first such instance of this being applied to the president on such a large platform. The move angered Trump and prompted a face-off between the President and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Dorsey said he stood by the decision and urged the president not to involve Twitter employees in his future retribution, after Trump threatened to “close down” social media platforms, accusing them of “totalling silencing” conservatives voices.