As presidential candidates become more creative in campaigning methods amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, increased attention is focusing on a technology that most Americans are familiar with: social media. By now, we are all aware of the substantial effect social media can have on a campaign, but now, a new executive order could also affect the censorship abilities of social media platforms. In particular, social media outlets have recently been under scrutiny for their actions regarding candidate’s posts, bringing certain internet laws into question. The public, for instance, has questioned the reasoning behind Facebook not taking action on the president’s recent mail-in voting claims, while the president has attacked Twitter for placing a warning on a similar tweet through an executive order. As these efforts continue to bring attention to social media platforms, debates over the legality of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act are brewing.
What is Section 230, and why do both Biden and Trump openly oppose it? Essentially, Section 230 protects social media platforms from being treated as the publisher for user-made content and gives such platforms the ability to regulate content. Both presidential front-runners, as well as politicians from both parties, have openly opposed this section for different reasons. The president opposes Section 230 as he believes that certain social media platforms are biased against him; on the other hand, Biden believes that Section 230 allows social media platforms to form falsities about the elections, stating that “it is propagating falsehoods (that technology companies) know to be false.”
Despite his claims about social media bias, the president’s threat of an executive order may have more to do with demonstrating presidential power than the actual legality of Section 230. In fact, such a threat could undoubtedly be used to affect the outcome of the upcoming 2020 elections. Through the president threatening to revoke what is arguably the internet’s most important law with an executive order, he might have another tool to wield from the bully pulpit of his presidency. Fewer hurdles from social media platforms would arise from his posts after an executive order is in place, therefore broadening his platform as elections approach. Such an action could also be a threat to social media platforms by showing that the president is willing to take additional steps, such as litigation, towards them as elections near. By threatening to take away the protection that social media platforms currently have with Section 230, the president is expecting such intimidation to result in a direct advantage to public communication in the next few months.
Looking beyond election advantages, revoking Section 230 is likely to alter social media as we know it. The law itself currently gives platforms the ability to moderate extreme content without having to worry about litigation, so without it, social media platforms would be left with only two options. The first would be to place extreme limits on what users are able to post to avoid threats of litigation. The second would be to not moderate anything that is posted. To put this drastic adjustment into perspective, consider the video of a police officer and George Floyd that recently went viral on social media, bringing to light the severity of police brutality in America. According to Ron Wyden, one of the writers of Section 230, it would be unlikely that social media platforms would allow posts about police brutality in a world without Section 230, due to the possibility of defamation. Therefore, movements concerning salient issues may never be brought to the attention of the public, and accountability through social media would be virtually nonexistent. Minorities as a whole would find difficulty in challenging the government and holding others accountable for their mistakes, which would weaken the media as a public linkage institution. Although this is one of many examples, one can only imagine what else could happen without Section 230 in place.
Even though the revocation of Section 230 is one of the few things that both Democrats and Republicans agree upon politically, the effect of this action on social media may be greater and more counter-productive than expected. In a world where technology becomes more relevant by the day, threats surrounding internet censorship laws should be scrutinized and taken seriously.
Simran Saini is a rising junior at Raleigh Charter High School in Raleigh, North Carolina who contributes to the 2020 Elections section of Next Generation Politics Blog. She is passionate about both politics and writing as well as bringing out youth voices. Simran is also involved in her local community as a youth attorney and a tutor at her local mobile home park.