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The Technology 202: Trump will face new rules on Facebook and Twitter after he leaves office

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with Tonya Riley

Donald Trump will be remembered as the Twitter president, and it’s very likely he’ll continue to use his online megaphone even after he leaves office. 

But he’ll be playing by a new set of rules after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated as major social media companies will no longer give him special treatment on their platforms as a global leader. 

  • Facebook will no longer exempt posts from Trump from its third-party fact-checkers. The company, which gives special status to speech from politicians on its platform, says former elected officials are eligible for fact checking it will reduce the spread of posts on its service that its partners deem false. 
  • Twitter confirmed that the company will no longer give Trump the special treatment it reserves for world leaders. The president has been allowed to post some tweets that violate the company’s rules because Twitter considers his speech in the “public interest.” But after he leaves office, violations of the rules could subject his account to suspensions or even bans. 
  • YouTube is the outlier and won’t change much about how it handles Trump’s conduct. The company says it treats posts from elected officials the same as it handles content from everyone else, and it makes decisions based on what’s being said in a video or comment. 
Big Tech's Trump dilemma could only get messier after inauguration. 

Any effort to apply their policies to Trump's account and limit the president's online reach could alienate conservatives. After all, about 70 million American voted for Trump in the election. But the rules as written give the companies little wiggle room to continue giving Trump a pass to spread misinformation on their platforms once he leaves office. 

Trump currently has a massive online megaphone that has grown tremendously as the platforms largely took a hands-off approach to his posts during his candidacy and presidency. He started his campaign in 2015 with just 3 million Twitter followers and 10 million Facebook followers, my colleagues Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg reported. Now he'll be leaving office with at least 88 million followers on Twitter, 31 million on Facebook and 23 million on Instagram. 

The calculation could get even trickier if Trump runs for office again. 

Trump, who is refusing to concede in the 2020 race, is reportedly talking to aides and advisers about potentially running for office again in 2024, my colleagues Phillip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker reported. That could further complicate how the companies handle Trump's account because in general, candidates for office do get special treatment from tech companies. 

If Trump were to run for office, he again would be exempt from Facebook's fact-checking program. Twitter declined to comment on how it would handle a hypothetical run, but its public interest policy typically applies to candidates for political office who are verified and have a following of 100,000 people, which Trump far exceeds. 

Trump is also reportedly interested in starting his own digital media company, aimed at taking on Fox News, according to Mike Allen at Axios. That could make him more reliant on his large Facebook and Twitter followings to promote it. He also has extensive lists of email and cellphone contacts for his supporters.  

Much of the post-transition focus will be on Twitter, given Trump's complicated relationship with the platform. 

The company has been more aggressive than other tech giants in labeling and at times even shielding the president's most controversial rockets from view on its service. Already, academics studying content moderation say that the company could find itself in a situation where it might have to suspend or even ban Trump, once he's a regular Twitter user again, for crossing the line. 

Twitter has in the past taken action against the accounts of Trump's top allies for breaking its rules. The company recently banned Stephen K. Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, for sharing a video that suggested Trump should eliminate Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, by means of medieval execution. And it has even temporarily restricted the accounts of some White House officials and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., for sharing content that violated its policies. 

Facebook, meanwhile, has been less aggressive in moderating Trump's posts, as well as those of his allies. Bannon shared the same video that got him banned from Twitter on Facebook. But Facbook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told employees yesterday that Bannon has not violated enough of the company's policies to justify his suspension, according to a recording of a meeting obtained by Reuters. The company did remove the video.

“We have specific rules around how many times you need to violate certain policies before we will deactivate your account completely,” Zuckerberg said. “While the offenses here, I think, came close to crossing that line, they clearly did not cross the line.”

Twitter is already under pressure to ban Trump now, even while he's president. 

There's a growing pressure on Twitter to ban the president's account now, as he uses social media to amplify baseless claims of voter fraud and sow doubt in the U.S. election process. Ellen K. Pao, the former chief executive of Reddit, and Laura I. Gómez, a founding partner of Project Include, have long called for Twitter to suspend the president's account. But now they say the stakes are getting more dire. 

“Don’t support a coup,” they wrote in a public letter to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey on Twitter. “Donald Trump is attempting a coup. And he’s running it through Twitter.” 

They say that Twitter's recent labels of Trump's tweets aren't effective because they're still getting widely shared and liked. Twitter released data in a blog post yesterday that said the labels significantly decrease the spread of misinformation across the platform. The company has labeled about 300,00 tweets for content that was disputed and potentially misleading, accounting for about 0.2 percent of all U.S. election-related content. 

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Major chief executives have not publicly weighed in on Trump's refusal to concede the election. 

But they're prviately discussing the matter, according to the Associated Press's Tom Krisher and Paul Wiseman. A week ago,  more than two dozen CEOs of major U.S. corporations participated in a video conference to discuss what to do if Trump refuses to leave office or takes other steps to stay in power beyond the scheduled Jan. 20 inauguration of Biden. 

The CEOs discussed making public statements and pressuring Republican legislators in their states who might try to direct Electoral College votes from Biden to Trump. 

“They’re all fine with him taking an appeal to the court, to a judicial process," said Yale Management Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who convened the meeting. "They didn’t want to deny him that. But that doesn’t stop the transition,” said Sonnenfeld. “They said if that makes people feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything to let that grind through.”

Many prominent tech chief executives have largely avoided commenting publicly on the election outcome.  Zuckerberg, Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey did not release statements on Biden's victory over the past week. 

Zuckerberg did tell employees he believes that Biden will be the next president, according to BuzzFeed News.  “I believe the outcome of the election is now clear and Joe Biden is going to be our next president,” Zuckerberg said in audio of the meeting obtained by BuzzFeed News. “It's important that people have confidence that the election was fundamentally fair, and that goes for the tens of millions of people that voted for Trump.”

Trump will ban U.S. investments in Chinese firms that support the People’s Liberation Army. 

The move targets 31 Chinese companies flagged by the Defense Department earlier this year, including China Telecom and surveillance device maker Hikvision, Jeanne Whalen and David J. Lynch report.

The order indicates that Trump won't slow down in his war against Chinese technology during the lame-duck period. Biden has said he would take a tough approach to China, but he has also been critical of Trump's trade bans. He hasn't offered a specific plan for dealing with Chinese military-owned companies.

But industry analysts are skeptical that the ban will make much of a dent outside escalating tensions with China. Some of the companies on the list aren't publicly traded.

“Only a small fraction of publicly-listed Chinese companies are associated with that country’s military-industrial complex,” Andy Rothman, a San Francisco-based investment strategist for the fund manager Matthews Asia, wrote in an email. “So it is not apparent that U.S. investors play a role in financing China’s military, or that American investments in China’s stock market provide Washington with much political or economic leverage.”

“It reads to me like the last attempts of an outgoing administration to do as much as they can to push a decoupling between the U.S. and China without being willing to really rattle U.S. investors,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

The government won't enforce Trump's order to shut down TikTok for now.

The Commerce Department cited a federal court ruling last month that placed a preliminary injunction on the White House ban shutting down the app, John D. McKinnon at The Wall Street Journal reports. The ban would have barred U.S. companies from offering the app or hosting its data. 

The government claims that TikTok's Chinese owners could be compelled to share U.S. user data with the Chinese government under the country's law. TikTok denies the allegations.

The injunction made it unclear what action the government could take to enforce its threat to shut down the app if it didn't divest its U.S. assets by yesterday.

TikTok also asked a federal appeals court for an extension this week on the Treasury Department's deadline for the company to divest its U.S. assets. TikTok is seeking a deal to set up a new company with investment from Oracle and Walmart. A ruling on the request has not yet been made. 

Both the Treasury Department and TikTok express continued interest in working out a deal.

Students are revolting against school-surveillance software they say inaccurately flags cheating. 

A wave of monitoring software that took off as education went virtual during the pandemic has set off lawsuits, online criticism and backlash from students, Drew Harwell reports

Companies including ProctorU, Respondus and Honorluck tout tech that uses a mix of AI and humans that can supposedly catch students who are cheating during online exams. But 14 students told Drew that the software flagged them for innocuous moments such as moving to jot down notes. The imperfect technology puts the burden on students to prove to educators that they haven't cheated. 

Companies have responded to growing online criticism of their products by shutting down posts with takedown requests and lawsuits. 

In June, testing company Proctorio chief executive Mike Olsen accused a student who posted his customer support chats with the company on Reddit of lying. The company also sued a University of British Columbia staffer, who tweeted links to Proctorio training videos that he said showed the “emotional harm you are doing to students by using this technology.” 

“All of us have the right to discuss whether this academic-surveillance software is ethical,” the staffer, Ian Linkletter, said in an interview.

Olsen defended the company's actions, saying it sought to protect intellectual property.

Correction: The post has been updated to correct Linkletter's affiliation with UBC.

Workforce report

A former warehouse worker is suing Amazon for allegedly failing to provide personal protective equipment to workers.  

The class action suit from former employee Chris Smalls says that the company's failure to provide the covid-19 protections to Black and other minority workers violated federal and state laws, Megan Rose Dickey at Tech Crunch reports.  

Smalls reported being fired from Amazon in March after organizing a walkout at its Staten Island facility. Amazon says that Smalls was fired for violating safety guidelines. The New York Attorney General is investigating the firing.

Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) 

“Amazon’s mission is to be the earth’s most customer-centric company, and this mission is central to our work in diversity and inclusion,” she told TechCrunch. 

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