On Oct. 14, Twitter “reduced the distribution” of the breaking story that the Biden family allegedly operated a criminal conspiracy to trade on Joe’s elected office. Another way to say it is that the platform simply forbade people from spreading the news, by blocking accounts and tweets that tried to do so. Conservatives have had enough and want the federal government to do something about Twitter. What about the broader implications for free speech online?
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaint Republicans filed against Twitter will go nowhere. As Liberty Nation has reported, the commission is operating with only three members currently, and federal law requires four members to vote in favor of any enforcement action. So, no matter the violation alleged or the quality of evidence, the FEC cannot and will not do anything about it.
What About Section 230?
Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, grants limited immunity for operators of “an interactive computer service” that takes action to moderate the content appearing on an outlet of the service. It is important because it means that companies such as Facebook and YouTube could delete the worst kind of hate and filth without being responsible legally as publishers of all the content on their site. If that were the case, they couldn’t operate as they do, and maybe not at all, due to liability concerns.
She Called Me a What?
This protection is primarily about defamatory posts. One reason, in addition to providing a superior product, that publishers of magazines, newspapers, and books have fact-checkers and editors is to prevent defaming someone. Defamation laws protect falsehoods about people from being disseminated.
Let’s say YouTube was liable every time someone posted a video or left a comment that claimed a presidential candidate had biblical knowledge of a ruminant, for instance. Its user-provided-content model would be made untenable. Before Section 230 became law, platforms had to essentially choose to moderate nothing, allowing a free-for-all with almost no restrictions, and be exempt from liability for what users post, or to be considered a publisher and suffer potential liability for it. Consequently, YouTube, Twitter, and so many other user-content-based online platforms rely on Section 230 for their very existence.
Shot Across the Bow
After social media started adding editorializing “fact-checking” posts to President Donald Trump’s tweets, he issued an executive order on May 28 to strip Twitter of its Section 230 protections. The EO directs that “all executive departments and agencies should ensure that their application of section 230(c) properly reflects the narrow purpose of the section and take all appropriate actions in this regard.” This was a broadside against all the big social media companies that make sport of deleting and shadow-banning conservative thoughts and commentators.
Another provision of the order requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “clarify” what immunity Section 230 grants. It appears that it will, and that promises to be bad news for Team Progressive. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a statement on Twitter — savor that irony — that said:
“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech. But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”
Well, at least not yet, anyway. Any change in the law or enforcement that affects the revenues of Twitter and other big tech companies will be fought to the death — and to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Twitter, for its part, has said it will change its ways. The platform used a rule that “hacked” materials — such as the emails gleaned from Hunter Biden’s laptop, which triggered the latest allegations against him — were not allowed on the site, apparently to justify blocking discussion of the claims against the Biden family. It walked back this particular rule, as Twitter’s “lead” Vijaya Gadde said Oct. 14 that the company “will no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them” and will instead “label Tweets to provide context.”
Pai revealed he “would move forward with a rulemaking to clarify its [Section 230] meaning.” He gave no timetable for when new rules would be announced.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.