GOP deeply divided over Trump’s social media crackdown

Conservatives are deeply divided over President Trump’s executive order directing the federal government to consider stripping some of the legal protections afforded to the social media platforms.

The order, which came after Twitter appended a fact check to one of the president’s claims about mail voting fraud, would ostensibly make it easier to sue the social media platforms over content posted by the people who use their websites. 

Conservatives have long been concerned by what they view as political bias in Silicon Valley. Those concerns have grown as outlets such as Google, Twitter and Facebook have become primary sources of news aggregation for many consumers.

But some conservatives are appalled by Trump’s executive order, viewing it as an authoritarian power grab that will lead to government censorship, an explosion of frivolous lawsuits and a massive expansion of the regulatory state.

Others are celebrating what they view as a long overdue crackdown on an industry they believe has grown too powerful and too willing to stifle conservative speech. 

The executive order has split traditional ideological allies, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), two of the most conservative members of the Senate. 

Lee described the order as a “terrible precedent” and a “very dangerous, slippery slope” that is certain to be abused by future administrations seeking to regulate political speech. 

“You keep government as far away from it as you possibly can,” Lee said on Fox News Radio’s “The Guy Benson Show.” 

“Governments have force as their only real weapon. You don’t want force deciding the art of persuasion or deciding the art of communication with social media,” he added. 

Cruz cheered the order, describing Big Tech as “the greatest threat facing our democracy” and arguing that the social media platforms have been able to hide behind legal protections to “target speech with which they disagree and advance their own political agendas.”

“[The tech industry] doesn’t just stifle Americans’ free speech, it shapes what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think about the major issues facing our country, including how those issues should be addressed and who should be elected to address them,” Cruz said in a statement.

At the heart of the debate is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from lawsuits stemming from content their users post online. 

Trump’s executive order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to determine whether the platforms can be held liable for comments posted by users.

The order would allow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice to review complaints of bias and censorship on the platforms to determine whether they run afoul of deceptive business practices or First Amendment protections.

And the order directs the FCC and FTC to study the extent to which the industry should be saddled with new regulations.

Conservative critics are unloading on Trump’s measure, with some calling it deeply hypocritical for the GOP to embrace the order after relentlessly attacking former President Obama every time he circumvented Congress with an executive action. 

The National Review’s David Harsanyi described Trump’s order as an “Obama-style executive abuse.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that an executive order “cannot be properly used to change federal law.” 

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board argued that the government should not meddle with a private company, a point of view that was echoed by small government groups that made the case that individuals do not have an inherent right to the private platforms they use.

“[Twitter is] within their rights to set community standards and spike posts they deem a violation,” the paper wrote. “If this feels suffocating, log off. That includes you, @realDonaldTrump.”

Free market groups, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), warned the order could result in an avalanche of frivolous lawsuits. The new legal liabilities would stifle innovation by presenting insurmountable barriers of entry for upstarts, CEI says.

Many are confused as to why an administration that has prioritized deregulation would sign an order potentially creating a massive new bureaucracy to govern internet comments.

And they warn that the order, which was ostensibly done to bolster free speech protections, will instead have the opposite effect by allowing government officials to determine what is acceptable and what is not.

“Censorship is done by the government,” Jessica Melugin, the associate director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation, told The Hill. “Twitter can get rid of my tweet or ban me, but it cannot censor me the way the government can. The real censors are a government panel telling Twitter what it can publish or not. It weakens First Amendment rights if we allow government panels or regulators to control what private companies publish.”

However, some conservatives are standing by Trump, making the case that the digital media platforms have grown so large and influential that they effectively represent the physical public square, making any attempts to police user speech on their platforms a violation of First Amendment rights.

They argue that by stepping in to editorialize around Trump’s claims on mail voting, even as they have been widely described as false by the media, Twitter has surrendered its protected status as a content provider and stepped into the territory of content producer, making it vulnerable to the same legal liabilities that newspapers face.

“Twitter … is well within its rights to censor or otherwise restrict a user’s speech — even the president of the United States,” said Jon Schweppe, the director of government affairs for the American Principles Project. “But if Twitter wants to engage in that censorship, they should not be receiving a special subsidy from the federal government in the form of immunity from civil liability.”

There are some areas of overlapping concern among conservatives on both sides of the issue.

Most conservatives would prefer the issue be handled legislatively, rather than by executive order. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has made a name for himself on the right by seeking to pass a bill that would overhaul Section 230, although many disagree with his legislative push.

And while some believe allegations of “censorship” against Twitter are overblown, there is a shared sense of frustration with how the social media giant fact-checks debatable political statements or seems to implement its standards arbitrarily.

“These platforms influence elections and can determine results, so there just has to be a broader discussion about these market-dominant platforms are adhering to the First Amendment public square standard,” Schweppe said.

Tags Donald Trump Josh Hawley Mike Lee Ted Cruz

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