Donald Trump said something egregious on Tuesday evening.
In itself, that certainly isn’t “news,” especially not in what’s passing for “reality” between now and Joe Biden’s inauguration.
I’ve gone to considerable lengths to be highly selective when it comes to covering Trump’s balderdash over the past six or so months. I have two primary concerns, and I’ll put them out there in plain language for a readership that’s grown materially in 2020.
First, quite a bit of what Trump says is objectively false. I don’t print falsehoods. Or certainly not deliberately anyway. More recently, his rhetoric, along with that of his associates, poses what I think most rational people would describe as an imminent threat to lives and property. One Georgia official held a press conference to say just that on Tuesday. Reprinting the rhetoric — even to decry it — risks perpetuating the threat.
Second, by virtue of being increasingly far-fetched, Trump’s rhetoric has become less and less relevant for markets and the economy (and thereby less and less relevant for readers) over time. Some recent assertions (e.g., allegations delivered during a Sunday phone interview with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo) are completely detached from reality. Trump has always had what many euphemistically describe as a “tenuous relationship with the truth,” but at this juncture, his various accusations and election-related protestations are pure fantasy. It’s not just that they have no “merit.” And it’s not even that they aren’t fact-based. Rather, the issue now is that what Trump says isn’t reality-based.
Given those two primary concerns, I’ve eschewed documenting Trump’s breathless tweets and various bombast. I don’t think it’s helpful, constructive, or relevant for serious people interested in serious analysis. And that’s what I try to provide each day: Serious analysis for serious people.
With that out of the way, Trump’s Tuesday evening tweet about social media’s liability shield deserves a mention in these pages, as it’s relevant for the companies in question and also for Congress.
For those who don’t subject themselves to Trump’s Twitter feed, the following was prominently “pinned” to the top of his timeline, which just means that anyone who came across his profile on Wednesday would read it first (before scrolling down to peruse an endless stream of what I’ll politely describe as “questionable” behavior):
Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to “Big Tech” (the only companies in America that have it – corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity. Our Country can never be safe & secure if we allow it to stand……….Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!
Trump has, of course, spent the better part of a year attempting to dismantle tech’s liability shield for one very simple reason: To punish companies for their efforts to prevent him, GOP lawmakers, and right-wing provocateurs, from spreading misinformation and outright falsehoods to the public.
For social media giants, scrutiny of Trump’s behavior (and that of his allies, both in government and in the private sector) is in part aimed at making amends for 2016, when Facebook and Twitter were harnessed to undermine western democracies, both in the US and in Europe. Twitter has arguably been more earnest and aggressive in their efforts compared to Facebook which, by some accounts, is barely trying (see this recent piece in The New Yorker for example).
In late May, Trump issued a somewhat farcical executive order on social media “bias.” Virtually no one took it seriously at the time. I argued it needed to placed in the wider context of the president’s increasingly authoritarian leanings, especially considering recent efforts on the part of Twitter and Facebook to fact-check his manifestly false claims. For months, Twitter has placed warnings on his tweets.
Trump’s crusade against big tech is now more urgent for one obvious reason: He’s leaving office soon, one way or another. The tweet excerpted above is supremely ironic. Trump is threatening to veto the annual defense bill (a move which, definitionally speaking at least, is a threat to national security) on the excuse that Facebook and Twitter are a national security threat.
This isn’t the first time Trump has threatened such a veto. Over the summer, he caused a stir by pushing back against calls to rename US military bases which honor Confederate generals.
“A repeal of online liability protections first emerged last month after White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows floated a potential agreement in which Trump would drop his opposition to renaming military bases in exchange for repealing Section 230,” Politico notes, adding that while “House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith… conceded social media platforms had abused their immunity, he downplayed the likelihood of Democrats agreeing to Trump’s wholesale repeal” and told the Council on Foreign Relations that “the president’s motivation is transparent: He thinks social media was mean to him … and he wants to sue them.”
Clearly, this is beyond the pale. While I understand (and even sympathize with) many of the bipartisan critiques of big tech, this isn’t one of them, especially not when it comes to selectively flagging or removing content deemed dangerous.
If you read the linked New Yorker piece mentioned above, you’ll come away absolutely aghast (if not wholly surprised) at what’s still allowed in terms of hate speech on Facebook. If anything, social media should be encouraged to exercise draconian censorship up to and until the public understands that hate speech and misinformation aimed at undermining democratic institutions, is not “protected” anywhere, let alone on platforms where, if private enterprise means anything at all anymore, management is fully within their rights to flag or remove virtually anything they want.
While lawmakers from both parties have various concerns about the liability shield, Trump’s attempt to remove it using a veto of a must-pass defense bill is objectively dangerous for too many reasons to catalogue.
If you’re curious to know how Trump’s tweets on this issue are being described behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, one senior House staffer told Politico this: “It’s a f**king joke.”
“This is a complex debate that has no business as an eleventh-hour airdrop,” the person added.
On Monday, Axios documented “last-minute maneuvering” by Republicans, who are trying to cobble together several proposals that address bipartisan concerns, but the odds aren’t good. As far as Trump’s demand for a full repeal, that’s seen as totally implausible.