U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to "strongly regulate" or close down social media platforms, after Twitter tagged a pair of his tweets with a fact-check warning.
The president is to sign on Thursday an executive order “pertaining to social media,” according to the White House press office, which provided no further details.
In Wednesday morning tweets, Trump said that Republicans feel that "Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative voices." He alleged that social media sites attempted — and failed — to stifle conservatives' voices during the 2016 election. "We can't let a more sophisticated version of that happen again," Trump said.
The president also declared that “Twitter has now shown that everything we have been saying about them (and their other compatriots) is correct. Big action to follow!”
On Tuesday, an unprecedented alert on the @realDonaldTrump tweets about mail-in balloting prompted the president to accuse Twitter of interference in this year’s election and of “completely stifling” free speech.
“I, as President, will not allow it to happen,” he concluded.
When those viewing Trump’s flagged tweets on Tuesday clicked on the warning placed by Twitter, they were taken to a notification titled: "Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud."
The alert, linked to stories from CNN and The Washington Post, and also included this fact box:
What you need to know
— Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to "a Rigged Election." However, fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud.
— Trump falsely claimed that California will send mail-in ballots to "anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there." In fact, only registered voters will receive ballots.
— Five states already vote entirely by mail and all states offer some form of mail-in absentee voting, according to NBC News.
"The First Amendment significantly constrains any action the president could take to regulate social media platforms. The First Amendment also clearly prohibits the president from taking any action to stop Twitter from pointing out his blatant lies about voting by mail,” said Kate Ruane, the senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement Wednesday.
“Social media companies have been struggling with the spread of misinformation and the need for fact checking for years, most prominently in the last presidential election,” said Marcus Messner, the director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
“Twitter is right to flag incorrect information even when it involves tweets by President Trump,” Messner told VOA.
The journalism professor noted the action “walks the fine line between fact checking and being accused of censoring political speech through more drastic measures such as deleting posts and suspending accounts. But the question remains whether the fact tags with links to news articles will even be recognized by supporters of President Trump, who regularly dismiss all reporting from mainstream media. The effect of the fact tags in this heated partisan environment might be limited.”
'Think more critically'
Texas A&M communications assistant professor Jennifer Mercieca, who refers to Trump as “an outrage president” who uses social media to “go around the news filter and speak directly with his supporters and set the nation’s news agenda,” said Twitter’s strategy “allows Trump to communicate, but enables his audience to think more critically about the content of his message.”
Mercieca, author of “2020: Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump,” accuses Trump of using his Twitter account irresponsibly to spread “conspiracy, racism and misinformation.”
The president’s response to the action by the platform “is to further use outrage to condemn Twitter for the policy while vaguely threatening that he would do something to stop them,” she told VOA.
It is unclear what legal leverage Trump has over Twitter, which does not need any government licenses to operate as do radio or television stations.
A Twitter spokesperson said the company took the unprecedented action, based on its new policy announced earlier this month, because Trump’s tweets "contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots."
Claim about California
During an exchange with reporters in the White House Rose Garden earlier Tuesday, Trump, responding to a journalist’s questions about his mail-in ballot accusations, claimed the state of California — the most populous in the country — would be sending out “millions and millions of ballots to anybody,” including those who “don’t have the right to vote.”
California is planning to send every registered voter a ballot by mail for the November 3 election, a plan that prompted the Republican National Committee to sue California Governor Gavin Newsom.
The action by Twitter to flag Trump’s tweets “is a small step in the right direction. But we can all do our part to call out the lies,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla tweeted on Tuesday evening. “The president is intentionally spreading false information about vote by mail and blatantly trying to suppress the vote.”
Twitter’s action is also being defended by PEN America.
“Free speech has never involved a right to say things that are false and not be held to account. In this instance, Twitter has neither silenced the president nor closed his account. And that’s a good thing. It is valuable for Americans to know what their president thinks, no matter how odious. It's often revelatory,” said Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the 98-year-old writers organization dedicated to protecting “free expression in the United States and worldwide.”
“But when those tweets are deceptive or misleading, the company is well within its rights to apply its rules: namely that information will be fact-checked, and if found to be false, marked as such,” said Nossel. “Twitter is not obligated to offer a vehicle for President Trump's falsehoods, and he perverts the power of the presidency in threatening the company for doing so.”
Old conspiracy theory
Twitter has also been facing calls to remove Trump’s tweets that push an old conspiracy theory about the death of a congressional staffer.
The president has stopped short of directly accusing Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who hosts a morning program on the MSNBC cable channel, of killing a woman in 2001 even though the politician was 1,300 kilometers away at the time and authorities ruled her death an accident.
Scarborough was once friendly with Trump but has become a fierce on-air critic of the president.
“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” said a Twitter spokesperson on Tuesday. “We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”
Timothy Klausutis, widower of Lori Klausutis, has written to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claiming the president has violated the social media company’s terms of service and “has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.”