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President Trump’s Executive Order on Social Media, Explained

Focusing on Free Speech

On Thursday President Donald Trump announced an executive order aimed at social media companies, calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change the rules about when these firms can remove content from their platforms. Silicon Valley giants like Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB), and Google (GOOGL) were caught squarely in the crosshairs of the new directive.

Trump’s executive order comes after Twitter fact-checked the president’s claims about voting by mail in California on Tuesday. Twitter’s decision initiated a debate about the role of social media in restricting speech and prompted Trump to promise “a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!”

A lack of Congressional action may limit President Trump’s executive order, but that didn’t stop the announcement from impacting shares of some of the largest companies on Thursday. Twitter’s stock tumbled 4.5%, Facebook’s fell by more than 1.6%, and Google ended the day lower by 0.1%.

The Looming Question of Liability

The working order takes aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which, as it’s currently written, mostly exempts social media companies from being liable for what’s published on their platforms.

Section 230 has long been a minefield. Social media companies say the exemption is necessary to preserve users’ free speech, while activists and politicians on both sides have pushed for increased liability for firms with “user generated content” or UGC. The issue has become increasingly acute as more people rely on these platforms for a significant amount of their information. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2019, 55% of US adults now consume their daily news intake from social media either “often” or “sometimes.” This figure was up 8% from the year before.

Trump’s executive order would also encourage the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to punish social media companies engaging in what the working order calls “deceptive” communications practices and enlist state attorneys general to review applicable statutes in their states. For more context, the same Pew report also found that nearly 90% of Americans recognized social media companies control what users see in their feeds through algorithmic selection. Six out of 10 adults felt this was a problem.

Social Media CEOs Weigh In

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the company’s actions on his social media platform, tweeting on Wednesday that Twitter’s fact-checking doesn’t make the company “an arbiter of truth.”

“Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions,” Dorsey added .

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview Thursday that social media companies shouldn’t fact-check politicians’ words on their platforms. “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say,” he said .

Zooming out, the topic of free speech on social media platforms has been a hot-button political issue for a while now. The latest executive order highlights that it’s reached a boiling point during this election year. Although not directly related, it’s important to keep in mind that big-tech companies are also under the microscope for potential antitrust concerns. These two issues combined will make 2020 a telling year for big tech.

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