A tweet by US President Donald Trump on Wednesday, May 26 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ANDREW HARRER
A tweet by US President Donald Trump on Wednesday, May 26 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ANDREW HARRER

Washington/San Francisco — US President Donald Trump threatened to regulate or shutter social media companies — a warning apparently aimed at Twitter after it began fact-checking his tweets.

In a pair of tweets issued on Wednesday morning from his iPhone, Trump said that social media sites are trying to silence conservative voices, and need to change course or face action.

There is no evidence that Trump has the ability to shut down social media networks, which are run by publicly traded companies and used by billions of people all over the world.

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen,” he tweeted on Wednesday. In a second tweet, he said: “Just like we can’t let large scale Mail-In Ballots take root in our Country.”

Trump didn’t cite any platforms by name, but it was plainly a response after Twitter added a fact-check label to earlier Trump tweets that made unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting. It’s the first time Twitter has taken action on Trump’s posts for being misleading.

Trump has little authority to shut the businesses, which are also central to his re-election campaign and communications strategy with the public

That move came after a widower asked Twitter to delete Trump’s tweets alleging, without evidence, a conspiracy theory that his wife had been killed by cable news host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. Twitter hasn’t taken action on those tweets.

Twitter shares fell 4.7% at 10,54am in New York. Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.

Trump has little authority to shut the businesses, which are also central to his re-election campaign and communications strategy with the public. Furthermore, the president’s threat violates the First Amendment, which protects free speech, says Herbert Hovenkamp, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Trump would like to shut them down because of the message. That’s something you can’t do,” Hovenkamp said. “Trump doesn’t have any authority to shut down a company that’s not breaking the law.”

On the other hand, there’s probably not much legal recourse for social media companies upset that the president is threatening to shut them down. “Threats have to cause harm and one of Trump’s problems is his threats are not very credible because he makes a lot of them and rarely follows through on them,” Hovenkamp said.

Trump issued a second tweet Wednesday to emphasise his intent:

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, speaking to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, side-stepped questions of what measures in particular Trump may take. She said social media helps conservatives skirt the mainstream news media.

“The president’s saying please stop suppressing conservative voices,” she said, before criticising Twitter’s new fact-check alert. “I thought using outlets that are decisively and proudly anti-Trump to fact-check the president was maybe the richest piece of the whole thing.”

Even if the president can’t shut them down, the big US tech companies still face a range of potential regulations. Social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube have been swept up in recent years in a broader backlash against tech in Washington, state capitals and even Europe.

US Congress is looking to develop a privacy law that would create more limits around how the companies can use data and what responsibilities they have to consumers regarding that information. The companies are already being regulated under California’s strict new statute on data privacy.

Lawmakers from both parties in Washington and the US justice department are also weighing proposed changes to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is prized by online platforms because it protects them from lawsuits for content posted by third parties. Some conservatives have attacked the provision for enabling what they see as the silencing of users’ statements by the companies.

The allegations have ramped up during the Trump administration, as the president and his supporters have occasionally clashed with platforms that they nonetheless rely on to spread their messages and grow their following.

While the companies largely deny they are biased and say they have focused on shutting down posts and users engaged in egregious conduct, such as threats or spreading harmful misinformation, Americans’ constitutional rights to free speech mean that the companies are generally able to set the rules for how their private platforms are run and publish views without government pressure.

In addition to questions about privacy and content, Facebook and Google are also the targets of wide-ranging anti-trust probes by federal and state law enforcers. Under Trump, the justice department, which is among those investigating both companies, has faced allegations that its actions have been politically motivated. The most significant outcome of an investigation, however, such as proposed break-up of the companies, would have to be approved by a court.

A congressional panel is also probing competition issues in the tech sector, focusing Facebook, Alphabet’s Google, Amazon and Apple, but not Twitter. It aims to recommend new laws.

Bloomberg