Defying Trump, Twitter doubles down on labelling tweets

  • >>Kate Conger and Mike Isaac, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-29 03:12:35 BdST

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Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco, Oct 27, 2016. Twitter on Thursday, May 28, 2020, added new fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets, even as the Trump administration prepared an executive order to curtail the legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for the content posted on their platforms. The New York Times

Twitter on Thursday added new fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets, even as the Trump administration prepared an executive order to curtail the legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for the content posted on their platforms.

Twitter’s move escalated a confrontation with President Donald Trump, who has fulminated this week over actions taken by the company.

Twitter on Tuesday had appended fact-checking labels for the first time to two of Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots, refuting their accuracy. In response, Trump accused Twitter of stifling speech and declared that he would put a stop to the interference.

Since then, White House officials have drafted an executive order that would make it easier for federal regulators to argue that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are suppressing free speech when they suspend users or delete posts. The executive order may come as early as Thursday.

But Twitter has doubled down. Early Thursday, it added fact-checking labels to messages from Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry who had claimed that the coronavirus outbreak may have begun in the United States and been brought to China by the US military.

Twitter also added notices on hundreds of tweets that falsely claimed a photo of a man in a red baseball cap was Derek Chauvin, an officer involved in the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died this week after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by police. The Twitter label alerted viewers that the image was “manipulated media.”

The drama between Twitter and Trump shows that a backlash against large tech companies, which had receded in the initial phases of the pandemic, is now back in full force. The Justice Department has also recently signalled that it is preparing to bring an antitrust case against Google, perhaps as soon as this summer.

“This proposed executive order seems designed to punish a handful of companies for perceived slights,” said Jon Berroya, chief executive of the Internet Association, a lobbying group representing many of the major tech companies. “It stands to undermine a variety of government efforts to protect public safety and spread critical information online through social media and threatens the vibrancy of a core segment of our economy.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said that the tweets modified Thursday contained “potentially misleading content” and that the fact-checking was consistent with the company’s approach this month.

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also said he would not back down from the fact-checking effort. “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information,” he wrote.

A draft of the executive order targets protections granted to technology services under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law gives tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter broad immunity from liability for content created by their users.

But as Trump and other conservative figures have claimed that social media companies are biased against them, Republican lawmakers have proposed modifications to the statute.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has argued that to maintain Section 230 protections, social media services should be required to submit to a third-party audit to ensure their content moderation systems are politically neutral.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, who wrote the law, said Trump was threatening Section 230 to “chill speech and bully” the big tech companies into giving the White House more favourable treatment.

“He’s clearly targeting Section 230 because it protects private businesses’ right not to have to play host to his lies,” Wyden said in a statement. “Efforts to erode Section 230 will only make online content more likely to be false and dangerous.”

The draft of the executive order included new ways that federal agencies could enforce against what it called “selective censoring.” If introduced, it would likely face legal challenges.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a policy non-profit, said that the draft executive order appeared designed to limit speech on social media that disagreed with the president. That was “literally the worst-case scenario that the authors of the First Amendment were afraid of,” he said.

Twitter’s confrontation with Trump has also opened new fissures in Silicon Valley. While Dorsey has doubled down on fact-checking tweets, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has distanced his social network from that effort.

In a taped television interview that ran Thursday morning on Fox, Zuckerberg said, “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”

His comments were at odds with some of his own company’s actions. In the past, Facebook, too, has introduced fact-checking labels, using third-party services to review potentially false information. The approach has been scattershot and uneven, and critics have argued that third-party fact checkers have been unable to keep up with the billions of pieces of content on the social network.

Facebook has also said it would not allow posts that facilitated voter fraud or misinformation designed specifically to suppress voting.

“We’re talking about this as if it’s about fact-checking, but it’s not,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog. “It’s about whether platforms will facilitate fraud that undermines civic engagement.”

Facebook declined to comment.

On Twitter, Dorsey fired back after Zuckerberg’s comments became public before they were aired.

“This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth,’ ” he said of his decision to fact-check tweets. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service