Trump himself gets a pass when it comes to moderation because what a president says is newsworthy. That’s a defendable stance, but as he increasingly violates standards and norms, his posts have become a firehose of toxicity. In 2017, Dorsey told me, “I think it’s really important that we maintain open channels to our leaders, whether we like what they’re saying or not, because I don’t know of another way to hold them accountable.” He also implied that newsworthiness might have to be balanced with community standards. That was many tweets ago, and it wasn’t until this week that Twitter provided a fact-check to a Trump tweet that told falsehoods about voting by mail. (Still, Twitter left standing a Trump tweet spreading a bogus charge that former congressperson Joe Scarborough once killed an aide.)
Zuckerberg has given Trump and other conservatives an even wider berth, beginning with his 2015 decision to leave up Trump’s anti-Muslim post that seemingly violated the company’s hate speech policy. During the 2016 election, Facebook did not remove false news stories from make-believe publications, even though it was clear that such information overwhelmingly benefited Trump. Despite this, the right kept complaining of bias, with Republicans blasting Zuckerberg in his April 2018 appearance in Congress. Zuckerberg knew full well that there was no statistical basis for the charge. But when I asked him about that soon after, his response was shockingly timid. “That depth of concern that there might be some political bias really struck me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, we need to make sure we bring in independent, outside folks to help us do an audit and give us advice on making sure our systems are not biased in ways that we don’t understand.’”
Later, Facebook commissioned a study led by conservative senator John Kyl which offered no data to back up any systematic bias. Instead of demanding that this should end the complaints, Facebook made some general adjustments in its policies that gave the anecdotal gripes in the report more credibility than they warranted. Appeasement!
Look, I get it—who wants to take on the president and the ruling party, especially when regulation is in the air? But instead of avoiding conflict, Facebook and Twitter leaders should have been emphasizing that they have just as much right to set their own standards as television stations, newspapers, and other corporations. Despite the fact that they are popular enough to be considered a “public square,” they are still private businesses, and the government has no business determining what legal speech can and cannot occur there. That is the essence of the First Amendment. But even as Mark Zuckerberg goes on about how he values free expression—as he was doing on television the same day Trump issued his order—he still refrains from demanding that the government respect Facebook’s own right to free speech.
To be sure, Trump is wading—no, make that belly-flopping—into a controversy over internet speech that is already fraught with intractable problems. The very act of giving bullhorns to billions is both a boon and a menace. Even with the purest intentions—and obviously those growth-oriented platforms are not pure—figuring out how to deal with it involves multiple shades of gray. But the current threat comes in clear black and white: the president of the United States is attempting a takeover of internet speech and asserting a federal privilege to topple truth itself.
Munich has failed. It’s time for the internet moguls to stop acting like Chamberlain—and start channeling Churchill.
Section 230 was part of the Communications Decency Act, a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The law included harsh penalties for “indecent” speech that minors might see. The force behind it was the conservative Democratic senator James Exon of Nebraska. While the “indecency” provisions limiting speech were thrown out by judges as unconstitutional restraints, Section 230 lived on. In April 1995, I wrote in Newsweek about the bill in progress. Who knew that 25 years later, we would still be arguing about it?