A great new book by The Post’s fact-checking team helps us make sense of this moment. It is a comprehensive effort to tally up the extraordinary range, depth and breadth of Trump’s lying.
When you view all of the lies in one place — he has told more than 16,000 — the effect is striking. And this larger context is crucial to understanding Trump’s new legal assault on Twitter.
Trump’s new executive order enshrines the hallowed principle that he and other conservatives should be able to lie and spread disinformation on social media without any fear of moderation that might challenge, fact-check or correct those lies.
We know this is Trump’s real goal, because he told us so himself.
The new executive order
The executive order takes action to limit the legal protections enjoyed by tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google. The ostensible justification is that it will help combat “selective censoring” by tech companies, as a draft of the executive order reportedly puts it.
But Trump himself has already given away the game, by explicitly declaring his plan to “strongly regulate” social media companies because they “totally silence conservative voices.”
Trump has explicitly revealed which “voice” he’s talking about here: his own. After Twitter corrected Trump’s lies about vote-by-mail being riddled with fraud, he tweeted that Twitter is “now interfering” in the election, citing that fact check.
Trump also linked the coming executive order directly to this alleged effort to “CENSOR” him. Thus, the executive order is direct retribution for the fact-check.
The executive order attacks Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This protects Internet companies from being “treated as a publisher” of information on their platforms that are provided by someone else. This protects them from being held liable for much content on them.
In attacking this provision, Trump is advancing an argument from conservatives — that by fact checking Trump, Twitter is censoring him and has veered into the role of publisher (by adding its own fact checking content), and no longer deserves that special liability protection.
But this argument is absurd. As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the author of this provision, has pointed out, it allows social media companies to police certain truly egregious content for socially beneficial reasons, without being held liable for content that is, say, defamatory that was left on the platform, allowing it to feature more voices with less oversight.
If anything, that’s the opposite of censorship (never mind that Twitter is a private company). What’s more, by adding a fact-check, Twitter is not somehow only functioning as a publisher and no longer functioning as a platform for content created by others. And fact-checking Trump isn’t censoring him, either.
While there may be legitimate reasons for revisiting Section 230 — such as its facilitation of the spread of election disinformation — the idea that Trump is being censored is not one of them. And again, Trump has made this rationale explicit.
It’s true that the move is likely toothless. The executive order vaguely calls for the Federal Communications Commission to “clarify” Section 230. As legal experts pointed out, this will probably come to nothing whatsoever. Trump cannot change this law by himself, and the FCC will probably do nothing.
But the intended effect is the real point here. And the intended effect is to make social media companies pause before fact-checking Trump.
Trump’s real game
Ultimately, Trump is not merely using state power to try to bully Twitter into refraining from fact-checking him. He’s also using it to bully Twitter into refraining from disseminating information that could inform Americans about options for voting safely in a pandemic, because he hopes that the coronavirus will dissuade voting and keep turnout down, helping his reelection.
Trump is using the threat of state action to make that happen. That’s a flagrant abuse of power, even if it doesn’t amount to anything.
In their remarkable new book, The Post’s fact-checking team — Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly — tally up an extraordinary range of lies.
Trump has lied endlessly about immigrants and his border wall, about his various enemies, about the economy and trade, about foreign policy, about his impeachment and, most recently, about the coronavirus, which has now claimed more than 100,000 U.S. lives.
As the book illustrates with new clarity, Trump has remade the presidency by crossing from conventional political lying over to something much more akin to the spreading of quasi-totalitarian disinformation.
Central to that has been Trump’s constant efforts to delegitimize institutions that strive for neutral mediating roles — and his constant attacks on the very possibility of shared facts as a basis for political debate and even on neutrality itself.
Or, as Kessler puts it in the book’s conclusion:
A hallmark of authoritarian regimes is to call truth into question — except as the regime defines it.
The true intent behind the new assault on Twitter is of a piece with this.