Trump's Twitter feud could have unwanted repercussions

One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump's United States presidency has been his daily stream of tweets. He has amassed more than 82 million followers on Twitter and, over the course of a decade, posted over 50,000 times. But he is now grappling with complicated and fractious relationships with the social media platforms he relies upon to get his message out.

Trump's supporters and critics agree that he has shaped his presidency through Twitter. He even said in a 2017 television interview that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram helped him win the presidency without spending as much money as his opponents.

But Trump's relationships with the management behind those platforms have noticeably soured. In May, Twitter slapped factchecking labels on two of his tweets, saying they contained misleading claims about mail-in-ballots. Trump immediately accused Twitter of interfering in the upcoming election, tweeting that the tech giant was "completely stifling free speech" and said he would not allow that to happen.

Two days later, on May 28, he signed an Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship. The order seeks to change a federal law, known as Section 230, that has protected social media companies from being sued for content their users share. The Executive Order asks the Federal Communications Commission to examine removing such protections for companies like Twitter.

Trump said the move was to "defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history," adding that a small handful of social media platforms have had "unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences."

That didn't stop Twitter from stepping in the following day when the President posted a tweet that ended, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." It was flagged immediately for glorifying violence.

Some experts have said the Executive Order is largely a toothless political move, since only Congress can revoke Section 230, but others warn that it infringes on the First Amendment rights of private companies. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel slammed the order for threatening free speech and attempting to turn the Commission into "the President's speech police."

Austin Petersen, a conservative radio personality in Missouri, says Trump is justified in his frustration, but believes the Executive Order could backfire. "Tech companies might actually have to be even more censorious than they were before in order to adhere to federal guidelines, rather than taking the risk of allowing free speech on their platforms," he said in an interview with NHK.

Austin Petersen
Austin Petersen, a conservative radio personality.

Trump's order also went after the social media service's revenue, ordering the heads of federal departments and agencies to review and report any spending on advertising with the online platforms.

Some U.S. media outlets report this provision could hurt Trump's broader agenda, especially when it comes to his ambitions to expand the military. The U.S. Army has been heavily utilizing social media advertising since 2018 to bring in new recruits and with the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, recruitment is expected to go completely online, according to Politico. Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley told the website, "We have a civilian-military gap, and we have a commander in chief severely limiting the ways for us to communicate with America."

Petersen says he's most concerned about the impact it will have on smaller companies and individuals, like himself, who operate websites. "Major corporations have lawyers and can afford to get around some of these rules or protect themselves but smaller companies like myself would probably be faced with surmounting legal costs," he explains.

Meanwhile, the feud between the president and the social media companies rolls on. In June, Twitter labeled a doctored CNN clip that Trump shared as 'manipulated media'. On June 29, video streaming service Twitch suspended a Trump campaign account for what the company termed "hateful conduct." On the same day, Reddit shut down a pro-Trump forum, saying it had "antagonized other communities," and the moderators had refused to meet Reddit's "most basic expectations."

But the president's presence on the platforms is only likely to grow in the coming months as he heads into another election, this time with greater limits on his offline campaigning.

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