By Chris Jennewein
The President of the United States is so angry about the fact-checking of his comments by a 14-year-old Internet startup that he wants vast new powers to control free discussion online.
Like China’s Communist Party, with its “Great Firewall” designed to erase criticism, Trump believes social media cannot be left to individuals and private companies, but must be monitored by government agencies to ensure “fairness.”
His new executive order seeks to alter Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields online posts from libel suits. As is typical with Trump, the order is largely bluster, and Twitter promptly flagged one of his tweets on Friday. But if Section 230 goes, much of what is posted online, from restaurant ratings to political comments, would have to be removed out of fear of libel suits.
The order also calls on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to prevent the dissemination of “deceptive” information and develop “any other proposed regulations that the NTIA concludes may be appropriate.” The language is eerily Orwellian.
The President says Twitter isn’t being fair to conservatives. But the Internet is vast. Fox News is just a click away, as are Breitbart and WND, sites where no right-wing conspiracy theory is too extreme to ignore.
Trump’s attack on Twitter brings back memories of the summer of 1971, when I was turning 17 and worried about being drafted. I cheered as The New York Times, Washington Post and 15 other newspapers published the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the Nixon administration’s restraining orders.
Then, like now, it was private individuals and privately owned companies speaking truth to power. The truth was that America’s involvement in Vietnam was fatally flawed, however courageously executed, and the American public had every right to know this.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are very different from the newspapers of 1971, but their role is in many ways the same. Think of all the photos and videos posted on social media that have forced governments to make changes.
The videos of a Minneapolis police officer putting his knee on George Floyd’s neck is a case in point. Would social media under the control of the federal government consider this a “fair” video and allow it to be distributed? Or would it seek to defend those police officers, as it did the secrecy of the Pentagon Papers, by removing the videos?
Donald J. Trump isn’t a king, and America isn’t a communist people’s republic. Today’s social media has the right — indeed the duty — to fact check those in power. Americans should cheer on Twitter.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.
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