The Media Today

Trump vs social media

June 4, 2020

Donald Trump’s preferred platform is social media. But he has managed to pick fights, and divide, even there. Twitter recently added a warning label to two of his tweets, with a link to a fact-check of the information he posted, and then blocked a third tweet with a message about violent content. Within days, Trump issued an executive order calling on the FCC to investigate whether social-media companies should lose the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms immunity for the content they host, because of what he says are biased decisions about content. Facebook, meanwhile, has done nothing about Trump’s comments, despite the fact that a number of staffers have walked out to protest its lack of action—an unprecedented show of dissent for the company—and some have even quit their jobs. The executive order is widely viewed as legally dubious, but it is a convenient stick with which to threaten the social platforms. Will it work? Is that why Facebook has declined to take any action? Which approach is the right one, Twitter’s labelling or Facebook’s hands-off strategy?

To address these and other related questions, we used CJR’s Galley platform to host a virtual discussion with a group of journalists, legal analysts and other experts. 

Parker Molloy, editor-at-large for Media Matters, said the executive order is just another attempt to deal with what conservatives feel is a liberal bias in social-media companies. “Is there any evidence of this? No. We’ve done study after study after study on this topic, and there’s honestly no reason to believe there’s some sort of liberal/progressive bias at social-media companies. Conservatives are really just trying to ‘work the refs’ as a way to push these companies into adopting a pro-conservative bias.” 

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute, said the order was aimed at internet companies—to discourage them from moderating conservative content—but was also a diversionary tactic to get the media to stop focusing on all the people who died from COVID-19. Even if the order has no actual legal effect, Goldman says, Trump “has likely accomplished his goals.”

Related: The police abuse the press. Again.

Bridget Barrett, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, says that Facebook “had an opportunity here to clearly communicate what it would and wouldn’t tolerate, and for Trump, it looks like almost everything will be allowed. As someone who has spent the past couple months digging into the policies that platforms set for their users, this is incredibly frustrating. More importantly, as someone who wants our democracy to work, this is incredibly worrying.” 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

And Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th, a nonprofit news entity focused on gender and politics, said “as a major source of information for a majority of people around the world and in our country, both of these platforms do have a responsibility to do no harm.” 

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard, made the broader point that “it’s strange that people like Mark (Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook) and Jack (Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter) have as much power as they do—whether to promote or squelch speech across billions of posts and users per day, including the power to do nothing.”

Issie Lapowsky, a writer at Protocol, a technology news site, said that the odds of the FCC doing anything to fulfil Trump’s demands in the executive order are slim. “When the order was introduced, one Republican FCC Commissioner noted on Twitter that the First Amendment governs a lot of the issues that the order touches on and said he’s ‘extremely dedicated’ to the First Amendment.” If even Republican members of the FCC can’t get behind the order, she says, “it’s pretty well tanked.” 

Karen Attiah, global opinion editor for the Washington Post, noted that in addition to Twitter’s moves, Snapchat decided on Wednesday that it would no longer promote Trump as part of its Discover feature. But Facebook has done nothing. “Zuckerberg talked about how he had a call and how he told Trump on the phone how he felt about the comments,” Attiah said, “but I find that completely inadequate. As if a phone scolding between buddies is a substitute for actual policy enforcement.”

Malaika Jabali, a writer, public-policy attorney and activist, said that Twitter and Facebook’s control over speech and what they do with it is important, but that some of the focus on Trump’s tweets and what to do about them is misplaced. “I think it’s important to look beyond Trump,” she said. “He gets a great deal of attention, but he’s a master distractor. And his actions should not overshadow the vulnerable communities who tend to get lost under the 24/7 Trump cycle. This is even more pertinent now given the current economic and policing crisis that has led to unrest over the past week, and how traditional media has covered the protests.”

Here’s more on the social platforms vs Trump:

  • Runaround: Goldman said Trump’s executive order is a multi-faceted attempt to get around the fact that he can’t actually force anyone to do any of the things he describes in the order. “In general, Congress makes the laws and the executive branch implements them,” he says. “The executive branch can’t override Congress’ statutory language. It also can’t definitively interpret Congress’ laws unless Congress delegates authority to do so.” As a result, the order tries to interpret Section 230 in a way that the executive branch might be able to implement, but will almost certainly fail in court. And it asks the FTC, the FCC, and the Department of Justice to do a number of things, but “it can’t force any of these agencies to do anything.”
  • Progress: The media has paid too much attention in the past to Trump’s tweets as news in and of themselves, Haines said, but many outlets seem to have learned their lesson to some extent. The initial attention “was largely just a function of the sheer volume and content” of his tweets, she says. But more recently, the treatment of his Twitter addiction has changed. “I would also say that these tweets are often no longer just presented at face value, but journalists are more often interrogating the posts, providing context, and seeking to get clarity on when, if and how his online rhetoric translates into real-world policy. All of this is absolutely progress.”
  • Middle ground: Daniel Kreiss, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, said he believes that Twitter’s approach to Trump’s tweets was the right strategy. “I think that what Twitter is doing broadly is meeting speech that it does not respect – that runs counter to its own clearly stated policies – with counter-speech,” he said. “The company did not take Trump’s tweets down, it contextualized them with counter-speech. To me this is a middle-ground approach. It asserts and acts on the right of the platform to set its own policies and rules, while still allowing the problematic speech (from the company’s perspective) to be accessible.”


Other notable stories:

  • A number of New York Times staffers criticized their employer publicly after the newspaper published an opinion piece from Republican senator Tom Cotton about the Floyd demonstrations, under the headline “Send In The Troops.” Several employees tweeted an image of the column with a message that said: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” Those tweeting, according to a Daily Beast report included restaurant critics, art and graphics producers, travel, style and culture reporters, tech writers, opinion writer Roxanne Gay, and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones. Opinion editor James Bennet said in a Twitter thread that “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”
  • The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of journalists who were targeted and attacked by Minneapolis and Minnesota police while covering protests. The lawsuit was filed against the city of Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Patrol, and the Minneapolis police. “The power of the people is rooted in the ability of the free press to investigate and report news, especially at a time like this when police have brutally murdered one of our community members,” said ACLU-MN Legal Director Teresa Nelson. “Police are using violence and threats to undermine that power, and we cannot let that happen. Public transparency is absolutely necessary for police accountability.”
  • With so many news events coming so quickly on the heels of each other, including the coronavirus and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what happened when, or how events are connected. So CJR managing editor Betsy Morais and writer Alexandria Neason put together a timeline. Journalism treats the coronavirus and the killing of Floyd as distinct stories, but “that’s fiction,” they write (an autopsy showed that Floyd had coronavirus). “Floyd’s murder, under the knees of a white police officer—and the demonstrations in response—occurred as part of a cascade of events. There is the history of systemic racism in America, police brutality, and protest. There is the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and its economic effects.”
  • Journalists covering the Floyd protests must resist the urge to simplify the story, writes Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. “Many would like to simplify these events—to give them a single, clear interpretation. Some tell a harrowing story about police violence. Some tell a heartwarming story about police and communities pulling together. Some tell an insidious story about black looters. Some tell a murky story about white infiltration of peaceful black protest movements.” The proliferation of false stories and fake narratives doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist, Applebaum says, “but it does mean that the full story has to be told in quite a complicated way.”
  • There are so many competing groups of protesters, each with their own imagery and symbols, that it can be difficult for journalists to keep track of who is who. So researchers and journalists at Columbia University have created an app called VizPol to help them identify various common emblems, such as the symbol used by the Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi group. “It serves more as a tip sheet introduction to ideologies of various political groups in order to provide context so journalists can ask better questions, or take more informed pictures, and caption them with more specificity,” one of the researchers said.
  • Amanda Darrach writes for CJR about how journalists should resist the impulse to make the protest story all about them, despite the fact that dozens of journalists have been attacked by police during the demonstrations. “We must stop focusing on ourselves,” she writes. “The journalist breathlessly detailing their own victimhood has become a sub-genre of a story that is, and should be, about the killing of George Floyd, its systemic causes, and the chaotic hostility of a president who fetishizes violence perpetrated by the strong over the weak. We’d do well to focus on those who don’t have the opportunity to write 800 words about their own importance afterward.”
  • Donald Trump, through his son-in-law Jared Kushner, encouraged his friends at the National Enquirer in 2017 to push a conspiracy theory that Joe Scarborough, an MSNBC host and former congressional candidate, was involved in the murder of an aide working on his campaign, according to a report in the Daily Beast. Over the past few weeks, the president has repeatedly promoted this theory, even mentioning it on Twitter despite the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death, and declaring on a Fox news radio program that he thinks Scarborough “got away with murder.”
  • Social media is allowing millions of people to watch history unfold in real-time through their feeds, writes New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel. “Following these kaleidoscopic live-streams of protest is a way of amplifying the experience of demonstrators — of participating in a national moment of unrest. There, they watch history in real time, as told through an endless torrent of photos, videos, tweets and firsthand accounts, from journalists and participants on the ground. Put together, it is a traumatic, often horrifying, at times uplifting and incredibly powerful document of a broken nation in crisis.”

ICYMI: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.