In a polarised world, even checking facts on Twitter becomes politicised

Kenan Malik
Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Like many Twitter debates, the war of words that broke out last week between Donald Trump and the social media company may seem inconsequential, even infantile. However, the spat raises important questions about the relationship between the public, technology companies and the state, especially in a polarised America.

On Tuesday, Twitter attached a health warning to two tweets by Donald Trump about postal ballots, urging users to “get the facts”. Two days later, a furious Trump retaliated with an executive order threatening to curtail legal protections for social media companies. Twitter then upped the stakes by labelling a later Trump tweet about the Minneapolis riots as “glorifying violence”.

At first sight, the issues are straightforward. Twitter did not censor Trump’s tweets, but merely alerted readers to factual or ethical problems. Trump’s executive order, on the other hand, menaced free speech, threatening legal sanctions as retribution. Free speech for Trump seems to mean the right not to be criticised.

Behind all this, however, lie deeper questions about the regulation of social media and its role in society. Trump’s executive order targets section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It’s an obscure piece of US law that is, as the campaigning group Electronic Frontier Foundation observes, “one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet”.

Free speech for Trump seems to mean the right not to be criticised

Section 230 excludes online platforms from most liabilities for content published by others, while allowing them to provide “good faith” moderation of users’ comments. Both are crucial not just for Silicon Valley behemoths but for newspapers and bloggers and any online site with which users interact or on which they can post comments.

Twitter and Facebook are private companies but also, as the US supreme court has observed, serve as “the modern public square”. This makes them ideal tools for governments to, in the words of Daphne Keller, of Stanford University’s cyber policy centre, “launder state action” – that is, use them to enforce regulation usually in the state’s domain. European nations are very good at pressing tech giants to “voluntarily self-regulate”, for instance by censoring speech deemed offensive or controversial.

Protections in other countries including in Europe are not as robust as in America. That’s why Section 230 has long been a target for US politicians, both liberal and conservative. The Democrats’ Joe Biden has gone even further than Trump, calling for section 230 “immediately [to] be revoked”.

Trump’s threat to Twitter is blatant and serves his narrow political ends. But many US politicians want America to be more like European nations, more easily able to use tech companies as proxies for the state. The result will not be to tame Silicon Valley but to disempower the public and constrain its use of the online public square.

The idea that the little people should be scrutinised, but not politicians, leaves a bad taste in the mouth

Trump’s feud with Twitter also raises questions about how to deal with misinformation. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg distanced himself from Twitter by suggesting private companies should not be “arbiters of truth”. Except that Facebook already is. It boasts of “fighting the spread of false news” and ensuring that content declared by fact-checkers to be “false” is sanctioned. However, Facebook excludes politicians from its fact checking. The idea that the little people should be scrutinised, but not politicians, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

And yet, Zuckerberg has a point. In a polarised world, fact-checking itself can become a politicised process. As Covid-19 debates reveal, judgments about what is true and whom to trust are not straightforward, even in scientific and medical spheres. Twitter’s fact checking of Trump’s tweet was itself, as the tech magazine Wired observed, misleading. Fact-checkers, Wired pungently noted, “are often just as full of shit as the politicians they’re debunking”.

It’s not that lies should not be challenged, nor that there is no such thing as truth, nor yet that we should accept Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s insistence that lies are just “alternative facts”. It is rather that what people accept as “truth” depends partly on whose authority they are willing to trust. In a political climate in which trust is fractured, so, inevitably, are conceptions of truth and falsity.

Debunking lies, and holding politicians to account for their statements, is vital. The challenge we face, however, is primarily political, not factual or technological. That’s why the problem of misinformation seems so difficult to solve – there are no simple technological or factual fixes to deep-set political conundrums.

•Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist