Trump, Twitter, and Section 230


 

The events in Washington, D.
C. last Wednesday, and the subsequent permanent suspension by Twitter of the
account @realDonaldTrump, throw into a spotlight glare the question of how
responsible social-media companies are for the material that users post by the
technical means that the companies provide. 
They add urgency to a question that was already being raised:  should Section 230 of the Communications
Decency Act of 1996 be modified or repealed?

 

The critical part of Section
230 has been hailed as “the twenty-six words that created the
Internet,” which is also the title of a book by Jeff Kosseff.  In case you’re wondering, the twenty-six
words are, “No provider or user of an interactive computer
service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information
provided by another information content provider.”
  To see how these words apply to, for example, the
thousands of tweets from President Trump, read “Twitter” for “provider
. . . of an interactive computer service” and “President Trump”
for “another information content provider.” 

 

What this section did was to place the then-infant
Internet in the category of common-carrier communications providers such as telephone
companies, and not in the category of news providers such as the New York Times.  The traditional “old media”
(newspapers, radio, TV) were regarded in law as the originators of what they
printed or broadcast, and could be sued if their material proved libelous or
otherwise harmful.  But if a blackmailer,
for instance, called his victim on the phone and made a threat, the idea of
suing the phone company because of the blackmailer’s actions would be regarded
as ridiculous.  So for the next two
decades or so, the industries spawned by the Internet—notably Facebook,
Twitter, Google, and their ilk—grew without concern for possibly crippling
lawsuits regarding the content that their users posted.  Legally, it wasn’t their fault what people
put on their sites, generally speaking.

 

Few people (or lawmakers, who are also people)
anticipated that the main source of news and information for millions of U. S. citizens
would shift from the old-media world to the social-media world, but that is exactly
what happened.  The techno-optimists who
foresaw a brave new world of egalitarian news sharing have been disappointed to
find that lies get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on
its pants.  (Neither Winston Churchill
nor Mark Twain apparently wrote that, but it’s worth saying anyway.)  In particular, the elaborate structure of
lies coming from @realDonaldTrump since the Nov. 3 Presidential election has
convinced many millions of people that (a) the election results were
manipulated by evil conspirators who managed to hide their tracks from everyone
except a few off-the-wall news sources and President Trump himself, (b) President
Trump actually won the election and deserves to be president for another four
years, at least, and (c) the alternative is the end of America, as the evil
Biden administration takes charge and sends us all straight to perdition in a
wicker container. 

 

After concocting increasingly incredible lawsuits
challenging state vote counts, the President issued a call via Twitter for his
followers to show up in Washington on Jan. 6, when a joint session of Congress
would count the Electoral College votes and certify the result.  He fraudulently claimed that Vice-President
Pence had the power to discard the results and reinstate the President, whereas
nowhere in the Constitution or elsewhere does the Vice-President receive this
power.  But by the technique of saying
lies and repeating them over and over in the echo chamber of the Internet where
people who like certain kinds of material get more of it, the President drew a
crowd of thousands to Washington last Wednesday.  He spoke to them in person in a long,
inflammatory speech that repeated many of the lies he originated over the past
two months, and then sent them down the street to disrupt, invade, and
vandalize the building where the duly elected representatives of these United
States were legally carrying out their Constitutional responsibilities.  And Twitter helped him do it.

 

On Friday, Jan. 8, Twitter
announced that they were permanently suspending @realDonaldTrump, citing that the
President had violated their “Glorification of Violence policy.”  To those who would say that Twitter is violating
the President’s freedom of speech, I would counter along with Justice Holmes
that that someone who is “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a
panic” has forfeited his right to free speech, at least with regard to
that particular statement.  And the
President has abundantly shown that he is incapable of tweeting without straying
into falsehood sooner or later.

 

But in doing so, Twitter has
admitted that they do indeed bear the responsibility for the effects of
information provided by another information content provider.  In a world where the main source of news for
the bulk of the public is social media, social media can no longer pretend that
they are a small, insignificant, hobby-type operation that people use mainly
for amusement and sharing cookie recipes. 
They now play a critical, essential role in the conduct of public
affairs, and their increasing censorship of one kind or another (of which the
strangling of @realDonaldTrump is only the chief example) amounts to rump
editing, essentially no different from what the ink-stained newspaper editors
of yore did with their letters to the editor columns.  To choose one letter is to reject all the
rest, and to censor one tweet is to accept all the rest.

 

I have no easy solution to the
problem of Section 230, but it is clear that things cannot go on the way they
are now.  As for President Trump, I hope
that Congress has sense and guts enough to impeach him with the penalty of
never holding a federal office again. 
But social media firms cannot have it both ways.  They must not enjoy the financial and
cultural benefits of being the main purveyors of news while shirking the
responsibility for the news (and lies) that pass through their hands. 

 

In calmer times, I would have
taken notice in this space of the Boeing 737 that crashed off the coast of Jakarta
on Jan. 9, but as of this writing there are few details available, and it will
have to await a future column.

 

Sources:  The Twitter
announcement of the banning of President Trump’s account appeared at https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on
Twitter and Section 230.  The author of
the “truth getting its pants on” quote is unknown, but researchers
have traced the saying back at least to the 1700s.



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