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PERSPECTIVE: What Trump Gets Wrong About Online Free Speech

Created: 29 May, 2020
Updated: 26 July, 2022
7 min read
Arturo Castañares

It’s funny that those who decry government intervention the most seem to be the first to demand it to protect themselves when they feel aggrieved by someone they can’t control. Such is the case with Donald Trump that lives by the credo of smaller government and free markets but is quick to demand protection from outside forces he thinks are infringing on his God-given right of “free speech”.

This week, Twitter added a fact-check link to a post from Trump where he claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting ballots would be “substantially fraudulent” and claimed that “mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged and even illegally printed and fraudulently signed”.

The fact-check link leads to a page that explains that Trump’s claims were unsubstantiated by media research, and that election experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.

Then came the avalanche of criticism that Twitter was “censoring” Trump and the inevitable calls for “freedom of speech” began.

By Thursday, President Trump signed an Executive Order against social media companies that he says “totally silence conservative voices”, vowing that “we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey online”.

Here, now, is the President of the United States, calling for the federal government to punish an online outlet for providing a link to facts about his unsubstantiated claims. Twitter didn’t censor him and delete his message to over 80 million followers; it simply called attention to the fact that there is no evidence to support his claim.

It’s like the Bizzaro World of Htrae (Earth spelled backward) where everything is opposite of the real world.

The Executive Order that Trump signed Thursday would open the doors for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review existing protections under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which limits the legal liability of social media companies for contents others post on their online platforms, distinguishing the sites from publishers of the material.

The irony is that Trump is threatening to increase legal liability to punish Twitter (the platform) for giving readers more information on messages posted by Trump (the publisher) of the content, not for censoring or deleting his posts.

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The long-term effect of Trump’s punitive reaction to Twitter would be to force online platforms to further police online content if they become legally liable for messages random users post, quite the opposite of what Trump is complaining about now.

And his cries of “freedom of speech” are actually opposite of the protections offered by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The First Amendment limits acts by government, not policies set by private companies. The government “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” prohibits censorship by the government, but nothing grants us freedom from companies that provide social media platforms and then limit, control, or censor how we use them.

No one forces Donald Trump to use Twitter. In fact, he doesn’t even pay anything for them to deliver the countless 280 character messages he sends out.

Well, actually, they aren’t countless. Since launching his Twitter account in 2009, Donald Trump has sent out over 42,500 tweets. That amounts to over 2.1 TRILLION delivered messages. For free.

And those messages from Trump have generated 221 million re-tweets and 933 million likes. Also for free.

Trump doesn’t see the irony in the President of the government demanding the government protect him from a private company whose free service he voluntarily uses to deliver messages.

This isn’t a case of the heavy hand of government crushing the powerless. This isn’t private citizens criticizing their leaders over abuses or misdeeds. This isn’t what the founding fathers intended when they sought to protect we the people from the tyranny of government.

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This is Donald Trump using social media to manipulate, derail, and interfere with our free and fair elections, much like Russia did in past elections, and using his power as President to accomplish it.

Trump isn’t using Twitter to inform people. He isn’t trying to inspire us to greatness. He isn’t even trying to criticize the government for abuses or wrongs (which would be ironic since he is the leader of the government). And worst of all he’s violating his own wife’s social media program called Be Best. Clearly he’s not being his best.

Trump is trying to scare people (with unsubstantiated claims AKA lies) into thinking that our institutions of government are corrupt, broken, and malicious in an attempt to win re-election.

Our elections have worked fine for years before Donald Trump tried to tell us they don’t. Mail-in ballots have been used for years without any reports of wide-spread fraud or manipulation. In fact, none of the 3,007 counties in the US have reported systematic fraud in mail-in ballots, not even counties controlled by Republicans voting officials.

Mail-in absentee ballots are nothing new and the process is well established. When someone votes absentee, they must sign the ballot envelope and that signature is verified by the Registrar of Voters before the vote is counted. If the signatures don’t match, the vote is not allowed. Further, records are checked to make sure that no one can vote by absentee and also at the polls, and that no one submits more than one ballot.

In fact, Trump and his family, and even his staff, have used mail-in ballots for years. Donald Trump himself voted by mail in Florida’s March primary election this year and, this week, after White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump’s claims of fraud, she was forced to admit she has voted by mail 11 times.

Then why did this whole controversy start this week in the first place?

Because several states, including California, announced that they would be sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters to encourage people to vote from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort was intended to ease concerns of getting sick while standing in line or voting at polling locations during the November election.

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Trump and Republicans immediately objected to those plans and began spreading unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and election “stealing” in an effort to suppress voter turnout which Republicans have always thought improves their election chances when people of color and disenfranchised voters don’t show up to vote.

By spreading these false claims now, Trump also hopes to lay the foundation to undercut the results of the election in case he loses.

Those claims might have been more credible if Trump didn’t make those very same claims every election, even in the one where he won.

Trump has claimed several times that 3 million “illegal votes” were cast in the 2016 election where Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million votes more than he did. Again there are no reports from any state that wide-spread voter fraud occurred in 2016, but it gives Trump an excuse for his popular vote defeat even though he won the Electoral College.

So this all comes down to Donald Trump not liking that Twitter, and maybe other social media sites to follow, provides users with a link where they can find more information on the topic of his questionable message. They didn’t deny him the platform, just gave the public more information. And it surely did not “totally silence conservative voices” as his new order claims.

Trump has the largest megaphone and platform on Earth; he’s the leader of the free world. He can get media coverage of anything he says at any time. All he has to do is open his mouth.

He likes to play the victim and feign as the downtrodden, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him when he’s the most powerful person in the world.

Twitter and other social media outlets should be free to run their platforms as they wish. We don’t have to like it and we surely don’t have to use them.

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And that goes for Donald Trump, too.

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