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Trump vs Twitter – what's the beef?

Saturday June 20 2020
By JOHN WALUBENGO

President Trump finally picked a fight with the platform that has kept his political base intact by constantly consuming his unrelenting tweets on a twenty-four hour basis.

Over a week ago, he tweeted about the vote-by-mail - ballot papers that the California Governor was issuing to voters with respect to their upcoming elections.

Voting by mail is a common practice in the US and is a widely accepted way of electing leaders, but Mr Trump posted a claim that the ballots the governor was issuing were fake and fraudulent.

Twitter fact-checked the allegations and took the unprecedented action of flagging the tweet with a message that basically indicated Trump was spreading fake news.

A few days later, as the US erupted in riots over the unfortunate murder of George Floyd, a black man, by some white Police on patrol, Trump unleashed another tweet that claimed that the rioting mobs are thugs and once they start looting, the shooting would begin.

Twitter ‘integrity’ team again flagged this tweet as inappropriate and glorifying violence.

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This was one tweet too many, to be flagged in just a couple of days. 

The President was not going to accept this lying down and he swiftly promised to deal with social media platforms that were suppressing freedoms of speech under the pretext of abiding by their corporate terms and conditions of service.

And true enough, Mr Trump unleashed an executive order aimed at bringing Twitter and other like-minded social media giants into line. This executive order is quite long but the thrust of it demands that the communication regulator in the US reviews the legal protections that online platforms have enjoyed over the last two and a half decades.

LIMITED LIABILITIES

This legal provision is copied across the globe and considers social media platforms and Internet Service Providers and Internet intermediaries with very limited liabilities with respect to what transpires on their platforms.

The rationale is that as an Internet platform, you are not responsible for what users post, read or delete on the platform since the content does not originate from you, but is instead ‘user-generated’.

The only restriction or action expected from the platform owner is to flag and remove content considered harmful to minors or the general public good. This would include but not limited to promoting hate speech, obscene, violence, genocide and related content.

Lies and fake news has traditionally not been an issue of concern for platform providers since it is considered a price to pay for freedom of speech.

But recent events such as social media live broadcasts of terrorist activities, election related illegal activities introduced by Cambridge Analytica amongst others has put pressure on platform owners to take a more aggressive ‘censorship’ approach on user-generated content.

It is a very thin line to walk since once you start blocking and fact-checking user-generated content, your legal status changes from a platform provider to a publisher.

A publisher is generally a media house and has more restrictions, liabilities or penalties for content appearing on their platforms.

Mr Trump’s argument is that by censoring his posts, Tweeter has crossed over and become a media house or publisher. They should therefore be held liable for all the truths and lies that come from their entire three hundred million plus user base.

The American president is basically saying that if you chose to fact-check him, you must be ready to fact-check and flag everyone. Furthermore, you should then not run away from bearing the costs and liabilities of failing to flag some false posts under the libel laws.

To push this thinking, he has appointed a taskforce to do the study and hopefully arrive at this conclusion that would then be translated into a revised or updated law to ‘fix’ some of these social media giants.

I am sure African dictators are eagerly waiting for this type of solutions.  Only time will tell if Congress will agree with the recommendations of the taskforce.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu



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