Free speech and the freedom to peddle lies and disinformation

The intemperate outbursts of Trump are not just confined to name calling of Democrats; his target audience has been anyone that did not agree with him on just about anything.

US President Donald Trump, World Health Organisation, coronavirus, COVID-19, WHO
The order calls on the attorney general to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any person or group that destroys or vandalises a monument, memorial or statue. Photo: PTI

A huge social media war is in full swing and it has come to be known as the “Tweet War” pitting the U.S. President, Donald Trump and his White House on one side and Twitter on the other prompting many to come to the conclusion that finally somebody had the guts to stand up to the whims and fancies of Trump. And it came by way of Twitter putting out a fact check on two of the President’s tweets on mail- in ballots that naturally enraged him.

When the battle lines had been drawn Twitter also took the bold step of hiding one more of the President’s tweets as glorifying violence. “… when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, Trump said in a message on the mayhem that is going on in Minnesota and other parts of America over the brutal killing of an African American at the hands of the police.

“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank You”, was posted by Trump.

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The White House lost no time in re-tweeting the message that was put behind a public notice; and when Twitter responded by placing this and replies behind a public notice, the accusation began that Twiiter was being selective in application of rules and that its platform was being abused by “terrorists, foreign propagandists and dictators”. Posting a screenshot of a tweet by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the White House argued, “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, @Twitter has determined that it will allow terrorists, dictators, and foreign propagandists to abuse its platform.”

At least for the last three years plus and before that during the course of his electioneering, Trump had liberally used the social media platform to spew venom, invectives, incite, lie, spread misinformation and disinformation, or basically anything that came to his mind which for the most part did not make any sense or logic. About 81 million people follow him on Twitter and Trump literally relished the idea of getting up in the wee hours of the morning and rattling off a barrage of tweets on almost anything that came to his mind.

RELATED NEWS: Blame me, not my staff for ‘fact-check’: Twitter CEO on Trump’s threat

As long as he had his way, he had no problem with Twitter but when the social media platform tagged two of Trump’s tweets on mail-in ballots as “potentially misleading” and linked it to a fact checking page, all hell broke loose with Trump responding by saying “Big action to follow”.

In an Executive Order Trump has asked federal agencies to clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that give immunity from liability for content posted on their sites. The Executive Order may, according to legal experts, have little effect as the Federal Communications Commission, may not even follow the directives; and the final say rests not with the White House and governmental agencies but the courts. The general feeling is that in hitting out at immunity, the Trump administration is seeking to put fear on social sites and restrict their content, in the name of freedom of speech.

In a commentary for CNN Kara Alaimo says, “ It’s clear that Trump is using his presidential power to try to intimidate Twitter for rightly attempting to hold him accountable for his tweets… the president largely owes his 2016 election win to the platform, which provided him with a free, unregulated means to build a massive following and spread falsehoods. After years of allowing Trump to spread lies and abuse on its platform for his own political gain, it finally appears as if Twitter is growing a backbone”.

In fact many in the political and non-political world have come to see the insidious nature of the President’s tweets that on many occasions appear to break all acceptable norms of decency pertaining to race, gender, tolerance or whatever. The intemperate outbursts of Trump are not just confined to name calling of Democrats; his target audience has been anyone that did not agree with him on just about anything.

It is one thing for a social media platform to boast of being extremely popular by having personalities who have zillions of followers. But it is an entirely different issue if the platform is purely used by someone to peddle lies and disinformation even if at times may seem slanderous and libelous. And the spat between Twitter and Trump is coming at a time when social media platforms are being asked to show more responsibility in preventing posting of outrageous and injurious information.

For a person who has lashed out at the media for being liberal, left wing and peddling fake news, Trump is now furious that someone may put their feet down and question the veracity of something posted in a social site, even if it is from the POTUS!

All along the President had no problem with Twitter retaining anything and everything he posted even if some of them may have been patently misleading and false; now the Executive Order would make a social platform company or worker nervous of being taken to task for moderating a vicious content in the name of free speech.

RELATED NEWS: Trump says US terminating relationship with WHO; takes steps against China

For the record, Trump is maintaining that Twitter is shutting out the Conservative Voice of America.“Twitter is doing nothing about all of the lies & propaganda being put out by China or the Radical Left Democrat Party. They have targeted Republicans, Conservatives & the President of the United States. Section 230 should be revoked by Congress. Until then, it will be regulated!”, the President has angrily said.

In this “Tweet War” that the Trump White House is now escalating, the most obvious cannot be wished away: many cities across America is literally burning with African Americans taking to the streets to protest the targeted and brutal killing of George Floyd; nearly 2 million Americans are infected with the coronavirus; more than 100,000 have died as a result of the disease; 40 million Americans or one out of four workers are without jobs; and thousands of families are seen lining up across the country for free food and essential supplies.

What is the best way for President Trump to divert attention if the Chinaman, Democrats, Biden, Obamagate, liberal media bogeys do not work? Lean on the First Amendment and Free Speech, as if the man sitting behind the Resolute Desk really understands what these really mean!

(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)
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