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Science & Technology

Trump Uses Executive Order To Crack Down On Social Media Companies

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This fight between President Trump and Twitter seems to be escalating. Twitter has flagged a tweet from the president about the protests in Minneapolis as violating its rules against glorifying violence. This morning, one of the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission criticized Twitter, and the White House dug in retweeting the president's Minneapolis tweet. Now, yesterday, the president used his executive powers to crack down on private social media companies. That was in reaction to Twitter adding fact-checking labels to two of the president's tweets that spread false information about mail-in voting. A lot to talk about here with NPR's tech correspondent, Shannon Bond. Shannon, welcome.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So can you just start by taking us through this tweet from the president about these protests in Minneapolis, which, of course, sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody? What happened there?

BOND: That's right. So Trump tweeted calling the protesters thugs and he wrote, quote, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." And it's that last line that Twitter says breaks its rules against glorifying violence. So it's put this warning label that hides the tweet. Users actually have to click through that label in order to read the tweet. They're blocked from liking it or replying to it. You know, this is a bigger move than just slapping a fact-check on tweets. It hasn't put one of these labels on a Trump tweet before. And you mentioned the White House has retweeted that. I just checked. That tweet has now also been flagged. So this really shows that Twitter is not backing down and clearly neither is Trump.

GREENE: OK. So one action that the president took was this executive order yesterday. Can you just explain what he's trying to achieve with this here?

BOND: Yeah. So this is about a decades-old law that says online platforms of any sort are not legally responsible for most content that people post on them. So that means you can't sue Twitter or Facebook because you don't like what someone posts there. And Trump is trying to poke holes in that legal protection. He says in this case of Twitter, you know, labeling his tweets, the company is acting more like a publisher by making editorial decisions. And therefore, it doesn't deserve this legal immunity. But the experts I spoke with say this executive order is probably not legally going to carry much weight.

GREENE: And why is that? Like, are they just saying the president doesn't have the authority to do this?

BOND: Well, they say Congress has the power to change the law, not the president. And this might violate the company's First Amendment rights, which is kind of ironic because this all stems from Trump accusing Twitter of stifling his free speech. Now, the order would put the Federal Communications Commission in the mix here to determine if these platforms should have immunity. I spoke to Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC Commissioner, yesterday. She says doing that would turn the agency into, quote, "the president's speech police." But this morning, a Republican commissioner, Brendan Carr, has accused Twitter of punishing the president because it disagrees with his politics. So however this whole fight plays out, it still actually could be a win for the president. I spoke to Kate Klonick. She's a law professor at St. John's University. And here's what she had to say.

KATE KLONICK: The president satisfies his base, which believes that there is conservative social media bias out there. And they are happy at the end of the day. And if it doesn't work, it's not Trump's fault. It's basically Congress and the court's fault.

BOND: So she says, you know, depending how this goes, these companies just might not want to engage in this fight. I mean, of course, Twitter definitely still is right now.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, are companies engaging and reacting to this?

BOND: Well, there's a real divide between I think the companies that are most in the spotlight here, which are Twitter and Facebook. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Fox News yesterday that he thinks Facebook shouldn't be the arbiter of truth. That's the thing he's been saying for a while now. And Trump has posted many of these same things on Facebook, but they haven't taken any action. That said, Facebook is not supporting the president. And we see, you know, Twitter on the other hand is condemning the executive order as reactionary, as politicized. Jack Dorsey says this is about providing more transparency. So I think we'll keep these - we'll continue to see these divides and tensions widening and playing out through the election.

GREENE: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond for us this morning. Shannon, thanks so much.

BOND: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.