Trump seeks powers to rein in alleged social media bias

President Trump is doubling down on his attacks against Silicon Valley, fueled by his party’s conviction that social media companies are working to silence right-wing voices.

That hostility has reportedly led the White House to consider an executive order that would task the federal government with overseeing social media platforms’ handling of online political speech.

And the escalation comes as Trump is also trying to push the tech industry on other fronts, including to do more to help law enforcement find and stop extremists online, following two mass shootings last weekend.

“We’re going to be very tough with them,” the president told reporters Friday ahead of a meeting with tech companies over online extremism.

“They treat conservatives, Republicans totally different than they treat others. And they can’t do that," he said.

CNN on Friday reported the contents of a draft summary of the executive order Trump is considering, which would reportedly push the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to do more to police social media companies' content-moderation decisions.

Under the tentative executive action, titled "Protecting Americans from Online Censorship," the FCC would be tasked with adopting rules that would clarify when social media companies’ content-moderation decisions are legally protected.

The FTC would also take public comments on platforms’ moderating efforts and work with the FCC to investigate those practices.

The FCC and FTC both declined to comment.

It’s still unclear whether the White House plans to move forward with the proposal, which CNN reported could change.

“The President announced at this month’s social media summit that we were going to address this and the administration is exploring all policy solutions,” a White House spokesman told The Hill earlier this week, after Politico first reported that Trump was considering an executive action.

But many in the tech industry say the administration is pushing conflicting ideas, urging social media companies to pay more attention to what users say online, while also alleging that they are unfairly censoring conservatives. Tech companies have repeatedly denied that they are biased against conservative voices.

NetChoice, a trade association that represents Facebook, Google and Twitter, said Friday that an executive order on social media content would be counterproductive to the president’s goal of weeding out extremism online.

“In a week where many in Washington pressured social media sites to more closely moderate their platforms, we are seeing efforts from the White House to make content moderation harder,” Carl Szabo, the group’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement.

“If President Trump is concerned about mistreatment of conservatives by social media platforms the White House should continue a productive dialogue with the tech industry — not empower government agencies to regulate online speech,” he added. “Diminishing platforms’ ability to remove offensive content empowers the spread of extremist political speech.”

The roundtable on Friday, described by the White House as an opportunity to probe “violent extremism online,” followed a pair of devastating mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend. In the aftermath of the shootings, which left about 31 people dead and more than 50 wounded, Trump asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to work closely with social media companies to identify potential mass shooters, noting the man accused in the El Paso shooting allegedly posted an anti-immigrant screed online before killing 22 people at a Wal-Mart near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” Trump said in his remarks, one of the first times the president has publicly mentioned the issue of online radicalization.

But Trump did not attend Friday’s online extremism meeting, which was conducted by White House staff while the president attended fundraisers in the Hamptons.

At the roundtable, the top social media companies told White House officials what they are already doing to combat violence and hate speech on their platforms, including using artificial intelligence and working with law enforcement, a source familiar with the conversation told The Hill.

“We urge internet and social media companies to continue their efforts in addressing violent extremism and helping individuals at risk, and to do so without compromising free speech,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said after the event.

The tech companies sought to frame themselves as the “good” actors in the online ecosystem, noting that they explicitly ban terrorist and extremist content, even as critics say they need to do a better job of removing it from their platforms. The firms distanced themselves from the platforms they deemed malevolent — including 8chan, the fringe social network that has been linked to three mass shootings so far this year, including the El Paso attack.

Heidi Beirich, an extremism expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Hill that she is skeptical of the White House’s interest in the issue, pointing out the Trump administration declined to sign on to a nonbinding global pact to deal with online terrorism — the Christchurch Call — in May and invited a slew of controversial right-wing social media personalities to the White House a few weeks ago.

“I don’t think Donald Trump understands online extremism, so I don’t think that he’s going to be part of the solution,” she said.

There was no mention of the executive order at the meeting, the source said.

The Internet Association (IA), another trade association representing tech giants, attended alongside several of its members. 

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all been accused of not doing enough to stave off hateful and violent rhetoric on their platforms, an issue that gained new attention after the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooting earlier this year was livestreamed and spread across platforms.

“IA and its members are committed to playing an outsized role in combating the problem,” association President and CEO Michael Beckerman said in a statement Friday.

But Trump's attacks on Silicon Valley echo those of other Republicans who have advocated an aggressive assault on the social media world and on its legal protections. The suspicions of anti-conservative bias have propelled many in the GOP to call for amending, or even gutting, a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

That law gives websites broad legal immunity for what their users write on their platforms, while also shielding them from liability for taking efforts to moderate their sites as they see fit. Republicans are increasingly championing the idea that companies such as Facebook and Twitter should be stripped of such immunity for infringing on political speech.

Olivier Sylvain, a law professor at Fordham University who has argued that Section 230's protections should be curtailed, said the problem with the law is not that it allows social media companies to clean up their platforms, but it shields them from consequences when their technology is weaponized against their users.

"My argument is that the very people that civil rights statutes are written for, the very people for whom consumer protection statutes are written for, are exposed to greater threat and harm under the current broad immunity under Section 230," Sylvain told The Hill.

"The way in which courts have read the statute, Section 230 now effectively enables the further degradation of communities that are supposed to be protected under law," he added. "The principle problem is that, free from having to attend to constitutional regulations of speech, too many companies have not heeded their social responsibility. That’s the real problem."

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