Trump’s executive order could be a disaster for thwarting misinformation

Will Nicol

Donald Trump’s feud with Twitter just become a legal matter, as the president signed an executive order that looks to regulate social media companies by targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that shields internet companies from liability for content users post on their sites.

The executive order seeks to classify social media sites like Twitter and Facebook as publishers — thus making them responsible for content on their platforms — saying “we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to handpick the speech that Americans may access and convey online.”

Whether such an interpretation will hold up in court, Trump’s order comes at a terrible time. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging around the world and a presidential election coming later this year, misinformation online is as dangerous as it has ever been — and this executive order could incentivize tech companies to back off their efforts.

Social media companies are key to stopping misinformation

Since the dawn of the internet, people have been lying on it. But misinformation online moves more quickly and further than ever before on social media, sometimes with devastating consequences.

As the coronavirus spread across the world, so too did misinformation online. Conspiracies about the origins of the virus inflamed tensions between the United States and China; people claimed the virus came from a Chinese laboratory, prompting Chinese sources to accuse the U.S. of being the source of the virus. Politicians jumped in on the conspiracy-mongering.

The misinformation also threatened peoples’ health, as hucksters promoted questionable health supplements and even drinking bleach as cures for the disease.

The virus isn’t the only trend prompting extreme misinformation. The rise of 5G technology has been a beacon for conspiracy theorists, who accuse 5G towers of spreading the coronavirus, spreading cancer, and even controlling the weather. These rumors led people to burn down 5G towers in Britain and harass workers installing them.

In one of the most tragic examples of social media’s power, the military of Myanmar used Facebook as a platform to incite violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, a campaign the International Court of Justice deemed a genocide.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have rightfully taken criticism in the past for their refusal to tamp down on misinformation, but to their credit, they have taken important steps recently. Both Facebook and Twitter have made a concerted effort to thwart coronavirus misinformation, either removing posts or flagging them with links to facts on the subject.

Twitter showed its dedication to its new policy when it fact-checked a tweet by Trump himself, countering the president’s claims that mail-in ballots would be fraudulent. This was the inciting incident that prompted Trump to pursue an executive order about social media.

In a world where information, true or false, flows freely and constantly, it’s important for organizations like Twitter to source accurate information and stifle falsehoods.

“There’s just too much for individuals to process,” says Kristy Roschke, Managing Director of the News/Co Lab at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism. “We can’t do research on every single thing that we see, whether it’s a tweet, or a meme, or an article we read from the news organization, and the expectation that people are going to do that research is, I think, very naive. So these types of aesthetic heuristics, like a fact check or a label (when supported by research) are valuable.”

According to Roschke, Twitter’s new policy is the right move for the platform to make.

“I think the expectation that we would be provided with factual information on platforms is something that we as platform-users should demand,” she says. “And this is a step toward creating some processes that can be identified as normative behavior eventually.”

One of the great hurdles in online discourse is the way individuals interpret information in a way that suits their political beliefs, a mental process that psychologist Jonathan Haidt once compared to a press secretary.  When people encounter information, they interpret it in a way that aligns with their identities and beliefs.

Given the power of motivated reasoning, it’s tough to imagine that someone who strongly sides with a particular tweet could be swayed by a fact check, but Roschke believes it’s worth doing anyway.

“There will always be people going to the extremes who just can’t be swayed,” she says, “but I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of people who are in the middle of that, and there is evidence to support that fact checks and correcting misinformation on platforms can be helpful for those people.”

It’s crucial for media organizations, whether social media platforms like Twitter or traditional news outlets, to provide context and insights from appropriate experts. There are no easy answers, however,

“Platforms need to take a multi-pronged approach,” Roschke says, “which includes surfacing and prioritizing germane experts and quality information from reputable sources and fact checks … And removing or at least mitigating and downplaying questionable content.”

Trump’s order could have a chilling effect on misinformation policies

Trump’s contention seems to be that fact-checking him was a partisan decision and that his executive order is necessary to keep social media platforms from choosing who gets to speak online.

It’s tempting to hope that the courts will strike down Trump’s interpretation, as they have generally taken the side of internet companies when it comes to rulings about Section 230. That process can take a long time, however, especially if it moves through various courts. Trump’s travel ban executive order, for example, prompted more than a year of legal battling as courts challenged or upheld parts of the law.

In the time between an executive order and a Supreme Court ruling on it, social media platforms may experience a chilling effect, as they hesitate to crack down on misinformation for fears of legal repercussion.

Curt Levey, president of the limited government nonprofit Committee for Justice, said fact-checking becomes a “no-win situation” for social media companies if they face legal challenges for their decisions.

“We don’t know what the 230 landscape is going to look like years from now,” he said. “The safest thing to do would be to stop fact-checking. No one is going to sue you for not fact-checking.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has stood by his company’s decision to fact-check Trump, tweeting that it will “connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.

But Trump’s coming executive order may have already convinced others to back off.

Facebook had touted its efforts to remove and monitor misinformation on its platform, but in an interview with Fox News, CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared to say the exact opposite.

“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth,” Zuckerberg said. “I think, in general, private companies — especially these platform companies — shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”