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Can Donald Trump regulate Twitter and other social networks, as he says he wants to do?

The American president wants to prevent the platforms from reporting the lies in the tweets, starting with his own. But the measure could have the opposite effect of forcing networks to moderate comments more strictly.

Who is probably the most adept head of state in Twitter in the world, does he have the means to attack the social network? Donald Trump signed a decree Thursday May 28 to dissuade the site, and social networks in general, from ruling on the veracity or not of the messages posted there, under penalty of being held responsible before the justice for the content of the messages that they allow. Earlier, he even threatened to “to close” if it was impossible to regulate them.

A measure decided in response to the fact that, for the first time, messages posted by the US president about the vote by mail were reported as misleading by the platform. Since then, Twitter has also hidden a tweet from Donald Trump for “apology for violence” : “When looting begins, the shooting begins”wrote the latter about the riots that broke out in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. As the conflict between Twitter and the billionaire continues, Franceinfo wondered if these threats to the platforms could really be implemented.

Experts legally doubt it

If Donald Trump had gone so far as to threaten, on Wednesday, “to close” social networks, the decree he signed Thursday does not go as far. However, it attacks a key text of American law on the internet, section 230 of the “Communications decency act”. Dating from 1996, it has the double effect of exonerating online platforms from all legal responsibility for comments made by users (we cannot attack Twitter for defamation for the content of a tweet, for example), and their give the right to moderate these comments according to their own rules, even when they come within the framework of American law.

The decree signed by Donald Trump aims to withdraw this legal immunity from platforms that “censor opinions with which they disagree”, and requests the development of new regulations to this effect, which would replace the current text of section 230.

But the legal soundness of this measure has been widely questioned by several experts in American law. First, this decree “is unconstitutional from the start, since it was retaliated against” at Twitter's decision to check the tweets of the American president, says Jameel Jaffer, a professor of law at Columbia University, at National Law Journal.

Several experts also explain that such a law cannot be modified by a simple decree of the president. And in the event of a dispute, the courts would no doubt continue to apply section 230. “It's hard to know what to think about it”sums up Kate Klonick, a law professor at St John's Univesity interviewed by the New york times, “because you can't just sign a decree and go back, on a whim, on twenty-five years of law interpretation.”

Measurement “has no legal effect and is inconsistent with what the courts have said” in the past, nods Daphne Keller, who teaches law at Stanford, in another article in the New york times. The decree could even be challenged on the grounds that it constitutes a potential abuse of power and a violation of the constitutional law of the companies concerned.

It wouldn't necessarily serve the interests of Donald Trump

Donald Trump's decree is a double-edged sword and, if implemented, would not necessarily change the face of social media in the way he hoped. “Ironically, Donald Trump is a big beneficiary of Section 230”says Kate Ruane, a lawyer with the American Union for Civil Liberties, in the New york times. Today, this text indeed protects Twitter or Facebook from prosecution that could be brought about the messages of their users, starting with those of the President of the United States.

When the latter threatens the platforms – which he accuses of “censorship” to punish them by withdrawing this immunity, he takes the risk of pushing them to be even more strict in their moderation, at the risk of exposing themselves to prosecution. They “would not take the legal risk involved in harboring the lies, slanderous words and threats of Donald Trump”continues Kate Ruane.

This is also explained by a spokesperson for Facebook, quoted by the American site The Hill: “Exposing companies to prosecution for everything said by billions of people around the world would penalize those who choose to allow controversial opinions, and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”.

Paradoxically, it is in this logic that Joe Biden, the future Democratic opponent of Donald Trump during the presidential election at the end of the year, also pleads for the “immediate revocation” of section 230: in his view, legal immunity protects companies like Facebook which “spread lies”, as he explained to New york times in January.

It's more of a way to put pressure on platforms

But is Donald Trump really trying to enforce his measure? Some doubt it, including Zeynep Tufekci, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and expert on the societal impact of technologies. His decision is addressed to “one person audience: Mark Zuckerberg”, she argues in the magazine The Atlantic. She believes that, rather than establishing real control over social networks, the American president above all wants “ensuring that the red carpet that has been rolled out so far, in particular by Facebook, continues to be rolled out without hindrance”.

In the middle of his re-election campaign, Donald Trump continues to bet on social networks he also assured that he would continue to speak on Twitter , and his threat constitutes, according to the sociologist, an attempt at intimidation. “It already works”, she added, pointing to an interview with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg of conservative Fox News on Thursday. He criticizes the decision of Twitter, and excludes a similar position from his social network.

I strongly believe that Facebook should not be the arbiter of the truth of everything people say online.Mark zuckerbergon Fox News

The messages of Donald Trump corrected or masked by Twitter were also published identically on Facebook, without any reaction from the network. Already in 2016, the company had agreed to redesign a section of the site highlighting current trends, after being accused of censoring conservative views, by Donald Trump in particular.

Questioned by the New york times, Jeffrey Westling, member of the R Street Institute, a body of research on public policies, notes besides that the decree of Donald Trump, whatever its legal basis questionable, “doesn't have to be legal to be a threat” for social networks. Justice would no doubt prove them right, he agrees, but at the cost of long and costly procedures, which could cause them to wonder: “Will it be worth it, to post a verification message the next time the president posts a false tweet?”

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