By Amr Marzouk

On 28 May 2020, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order on preventing online censorship, which could significantly affect how social media platforms govern the content of their users. The move comes after Trump, a ferocious user of social media, was recently flagged by Twitter because of his apparent incitement to violence and spreading of ‘fake news’. In the response marking the aggravation of the feud, Trump accused Twitter of the lack of coherence in flagging ‘fake news’, which he claims reflects the companies ideological and political bias.

In this blog post, I draw on this most recent Trump-Twitter feud to explore the tension between, on the one hand, the need to prevent the spread of disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence, and on the other hand, the need protect the public against online censorship and the growing influence of Big Tech. I argue that Trump’s recent Executive Order serves to worsen, rather than address, these important challenges.

The Executive Order begins with identifying the unprecedented growth of online platforms and their increasing power to shape public and political discourse and to police the Internet. No one can deny that Big Tech companies’ activities can be considered problematic; from their cooperation with states that neglect human rights, to Big Tech surveillance that tracks every movement of individuals. In recent years, the academic community has focused on the activities of Big Tech companies both in terms of censorship and surveillance. Trottier (2016), for example, categorized various types of online surveillance conducted by people, companies or the police. Similarly, Stjernfelt and Lauritzen in their recent book “Your post has been removed” discuss social media censorship focusing on the powers granted to private actors to balance between freedom of expression and other rights and interests online. They conclude that it is up to democratic institutions to define community standards and not up to Big Tech corporations themselves. It must be noted that these standards are implemented also by the very community they are to serve, as described in detail by Roberts (2019), who outlined how content moderators ensure a safe experience for users by protecting them from hate speech or violence-enticing videos.

In some ways, therefore, Big Tech has become the Cyber Panopticon: it sees, it monitors and, yes, sometimes it censors. However, is Trump really introducing this Executive Order to protect people’s rights? To answer this question, let’s now examine the Executive Order more closely:

First, the decree aims to revoke provisions of the Communications Decency Act, section 230(c)). 47 U.S.C. 230(c), providing for immunity to social media platforms against being sued for content published by their users, or for removing that content. This could radically affect people’s freedom of posting online, since companies would need to take on the burden of assessing the truthfulness and lawfulness of the content before it is published, acting similarly to publishing outlets. As legal and tech experts have noted, it is a rather puzzling step in that, while aiming to end alleged ‘censorship’, Trump is in fact pushing companies to evaluate the legal ramification of every tweet, post, or video made by users, including himself. With this move, Trump is attempting to significantly change the way in which social media platforms should govern the content of their users.

The Executive Order names various cases that serve as ‘justifications’ for the decree. First, it identifies China and its relationship with Big Tech companies – above all Google, which according to the Executive Order, built a search engine for China which censors’ information and gives Chinese advertisements which spreads  propaganda and misinformation. The Executive Order also refers to a tweet from Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that led the Trump impeachment inquiry on Russian collusion, arguing that this was also ‘fake news’ but yet was not subjected to Twitter’s ‘censorship’. In some ways, this case demonstrates a merging between Trump, the President, and Trump, the User. As some critics have argued, this Executive Order is not so much intended to preserve free speech, but is rather a way for Trump to air out his own social media grievances and target political opponents.

 “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

These words came from Dr. Legasov in HBO hit series Chernobyl, which explores the nuclear disaster that contributed to the collapse of the USSR. Surprisingly, this 2019 series vividly reflects our current reality where fake news and propaganda increasingly seem to drive people’s political opinion and votes, as demonstrated by Brexit, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the increasing role of the Russian National Internet Agency.

Fake news conspiracy theories, such as those promoted by flat earthers and anti-vaxxers, used to be a laughing stock online and served as an easy target for memes. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are increasingly paying the price of such “alternative truth(s)”. Over the past four months all sorts of conspiracy theories and fake news emerged online, from a theory that COVID-19 was artificially generated by China or the US (depending on one’s perspective), to the potential harmful impact of the G5 network, which led to people burning towers in the UK, and also in the Netherlands; events that reminded me of the practice of burning books during the Middle Ages because they were considered dangerous.

Trump, a social media user with followers all over the world, appears to be an active participant in the spreading of controversial theories and news. According to CNN, Trump shared 654 incorrect claims using his private social media accounts, since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis (over the course of 14 weeks). Trump’s approach to the pandemic went from downplaying it (by calling it the Democrat’s new hoax)  to suggesting certain medications could cure the virus infection (without any scientific evidence), since, well, “what do you have to lose?”. Finally, he encouraged people to revolt and to take to the streets despite the lockdown.

In short, Trump is not simply a President who happens to use social media, he is also a social media user who became the President. This explains the number of Tweets he managed to post since he joined in 2009 (52.5K so far). This is more than triple the number of tweets of the former president Obama (15.8K), despite Obama having started using Twitter two years earlier than Trump. Trump’s war against the truth continues even during civil unrest in various states, which comes alongside the pandemic the effects of which Trump keeps on downplaying. This just raises the question as to the real cost of lies for the US, and the world as a whole.

If the recent years teach us anything, it is the importance of combating fake news, disinformation and hate speech online, while at the same time ensuring freedom of speech and preventing online censorship. This presents a significant challenge for policy-makers, and many countries around the world are trying to protect their citizens from Big Tech—the EU GDPR serving as a flagship example. Unfortunately, Trump’s latest move seems to come not as an attempt to protect freedom of speech or fight censorship, but rather a personal vendetta against social media companies from a user who also happens to be the President of the US. Trump is not trying to fight the Panopticon; he is merely trying to force it not to put the spotlight on him.