WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday designed – in theory – to make it easier to sue social media companies such as Twitter, days after the site placed a fact check label on two of his tweets.
While the order calls for changes in regulations that shield social media companies from legal liability, the Trump administration cannot do that on its own. Those changes can only be made by independent agencies and, ultimately, the courts.
“We’re fed up with it,” Trump told reporters before signing the order.
Trump, who had tweeted 29 times before noon on Thursday, claimed he would delete his Twitter account “in a heartbeat” if “we had a fair press.” Referring to Twitter, Trump said he would “shut it down” if he felt it could be done legally.
“There’s no precedent in American history for so small a number of corporations to control so large a sphere of human interaction,” Trump said. “We can’t let this continue to happen.”
Legal analysts described the orderas election year politics.
“It is a mix of political bluster, very-likely unenforceable provisions that would call for changes to federal legislation – and not an executive order – and a few areas where there might be some real questions,” said Kate Klonick, assistant professor at St. John’s Law School.
‘Potentially misleading information’:Twitter fact-checks Trump’s tweets
Trump also said he and Attorney General William Barr would pursue legislation to further regulate social media companies. That idea would likely face stiff resistance, particularly in the Democratic-led House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., claimed Trump only wants to intimidate social media companies into not correcting falsehoods.
The order “does nothing to address big Internet companies’ complete failure to fight the spread of disinformation,” Pelosi said. “Instead, the president is encouraging Facebook and other social media giants to continue to exploit and profit off falsehoods with total impunity.”
The executive order will also likely be challenged in court. ACLU attorney Kate Ruane described the president’s remarks as a “blatant and unconstitutional threat.”
Trump threatened Wednesday to “strongly regulate” social media platforms or “close them down.” Those threats followed a decision by Twitter this week to apply a fact check label to the president’s tweets about mail-in balloting.
But Trump’s order fell fall far short of a “strong” regulation. It calls on federal agencies that are part of his administration to request a rule from the Federal Communications Commissionthat would clarify whether it should become easier to sue social media companies over their content. It also requires federal agencies to submit a report to the White House on how much they spend on social media advertising and marketing.
In theory, it would make it easier for federal regulators to hold companies such as Twitter and Facebook liable for restricting the speech of users, either by suspending their accounts, deleting their posts, or subjecting them to fact checking – the issue that raised Trump’s ire earlier this week.
But the Trump administration cannot change the regulations unilaterally. It requires action by independent agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and, ultimately, the legal system.
Trump has threatened to somehow punish social media companies for years, claiming they are seeking to suppress conservative views and even trying to influence the 2020 elections.
“This executive order is typical of Trump: Full of bluster that requires his own government agencies to scramble to future out what it means,” said Barb McQuade, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at the University of Michigan. “But the bottom line is that immunity from defamation lawsuits for service providers cannot be changed without legislation from Congress.”
Twitter, Trump’s favorite online platform to post unfiltered views to his 80 million plus followers, added a warning phrase underneath two of his tweets Tuesday in which he reiterated unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballots, calling them “fraudulent.”
The Twitter warning phrase reads: “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” The link directs users to a Twitter “moments” page that includes news stories and fact checks. Trump began pushing back on the new labels soon after conservative supporters – many of them posting on Twitter – slammed the company as censoring their views.
Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said the president’s tweets contained “potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.” The decision, she said, was in line with a policy announced by the company this month.
The company declined to comment on Trump’s executive order.
While Twitter added the fact check label to the mail-in ballot tweets, the company did not alter or remove another series of posts from the president that have drawn controversy this week: Unfounded claims about the death of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s former congressional staffer.
Trump has made similar ultimatums to social media before. Two years ago, aides said Trump was considering new regulations for Google and other companies because, Trump said at the time, the search engine turned up many stories that are critical of him.
The companies argue the algorithms used in their software are politically agnostic.
“I think that Google and Twitter and Facebook, they are really treading on very, very troubled territory and they have to be careful,” Trump said in 2018.
The White House circulated drafts of a proposed order last year it said would address allegations of anti-conservative bias, Politico reported. While the attacks set up Silicon Valley as convenient political foil, Trump never followed through on new regulations.
Contributing: Savannah Behrmann