- Ramesh Srinivasanprofessor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also directs the Digital Cultures Lab.
As President Trump calls Minneapolis protesters ”THUGS” and tweets, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Twitter flags the tweet with a warning it glorifies violence, just as Trump signs an executive order to punish social media companies for how they monitor content. “Trump has prospered through his use of social media and its attention-hoarding algorithms to basically disinform and misinform people,” says Ramesh Srinivasan, professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to clarify the scope of a law known as Section 230, which protects internet companies from liability for illegal content posted by users, and lets them remove legal but objectionable posts. Critics say the order could be used to punish social media companies for how they monitor content.
This comes as Trump used Twitter to attack civilians protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, calling them ”THUGS” and inciting violence by saying, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter responded by labeling Trump’s tweet with the warning, “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible,” unquote.
This comes after Twitter on Tuesday took the unprecedented step of adding a fact-check label to two tweets of the president of the United States, saying he erroneously attacked mail-in voting.
For more, we go to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor in the Department of Information Studies and design director at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, where he also directs the Digital Cultures Lab.
So, can you talk about what Twitter has done and what this executive order means, Ramesh?
RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah, absolutely. And such an honor to join you, Amy.
So, Trump and Twitter are very strange bedfellows. Trump has long extolled Twitter and other social media platforms as his way of so-called reaching the people. He has over 80 million Twitter followers.
So, in this particular case, what we see is Trump being personally affronted by Twitter actually enacting something that it warned us it would do, which is actually labeling some of Trump’s tweets. That’s not a violation of his freedom of speech. That’s actually labeling some of his tweets because they are indeed misleading.
Trump has prospered, through his use of social media and its attention-hoarding algorithms, to basically disinform and misinform people, as we know, and you’ve reported for such a long time, Amy. Conspiracy theories and the politicization, for example, of the coronavirus are all occurring online algorithmically in ways that support Trump’s agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted, “The president has no authority to rewrite a congressional statute with an executive order imposing a flawed interpretation of Section 230. Section 230 incentivizes platforms to host all sorts of content without fear of being held liable. It enables speech, not censorship,” said the ACLU. And Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, tweeted, “Whatever else this Executive Order may be, it is not a good faith effort to protect free speech online.” Ramesh Srinivasan?
RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Absolutely, that is true. However, what Trump has done is actually raise a question that I think we all need to get around, which is really the question of how it is that our online media companies, which are the gateways to all things journalistic, have been able to get away with simply publishing all of this content, because they are indeed publishers, and they’re monetizing all sorts of journalism without any oversight or regulatory activity. And that’s why it’s extremely important to intervene on every level possible for the public interest, particularly at a time of pandemic, to ensure that actually public interest in an internet that was originally funded by public taxpayer money, where all the benefits and value and profits and so on have been privatized. So I think it’s very important that we actually revisit Section 230 in the image of people’s interest and public power. Otherwise, we see these conspiracy theories that are politicizing a situation where 100,000 people have died, and not really allowing us to come together in the way we really, really need to as Americans and people across the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So, The New York Times ran an article with the headline “Trump’s Proposed Order on Social Media Could Harm One Person in Particular: Trump.” How has Trump himself benefited from the Section 230 policy? Also, if you can talk about the lawsuit that tech companies could bring, and what this all means, especially as we lead into this election in November, if in fact it takes place?
RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah, these are huge issues that are occurring here. Again and again and again, we see Big Tech, basically, like Big Pharma and other sorts of corporate initiatives in America, basically, make great amounts of money off of the backs of American public taxpayers and privatize all the profits. And as they engage in their own private and unaccountable abuses, the costs are resocialized onto all of us. It’s why I’ve called for a Digital Bill of Rights.
So, as we approach toward 2020, it’s extremely important we recognize that Trump’s entire digital strategy game — you can see it with Brad Parscale as his campaign manager — is going to fundamentally focus on online, specifically on Facebook, hundreds of millions of dollars potentially going to be put into the digital ecosystem. And what is that going to do? Well, it’s going to behaviorally microtarget people. We’re going to be subject to algorithms that are optimized for our attention, which we know conspiracy-oriented content and sensational-oriented content really glue us and lock us into. So, what we really, really need to do is intervene here, in every manner possible.
AMY GOODMAN: What about these tech companies suing?
RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah. So, the tech companies themselves are very likely to engage in some sorts of counteractivity to actually stop Trump with this particular decision. It’s very unlikely to stand up, this decision, in relation to Section 230. It’s very unlikely that Trump’s act, executive order, will stand up in the courts. So, in that sense, it’s a distraction, but it points us to the real issue, which is private power dominating public interests involving technology.
AMY GOODMAN: Could Twitter delete Trump’s account?
RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Twitter could, potentially, but I don’t think they’re going to engage in that task. I think what they’re actually going to do is continue to label his tweets in this particular way. But we’re going to see continued backlashes accordingly, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Ramesh Srinivasan, we have to have you back on, but I want to thank you for being with us, professor in the Department of Information Studies, design director at UCLA, the University of California at Los Angeles.
That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. If you want to sign up for our daily quarantine report, you can go to democracynow.org.
Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras, María Taracena. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Denis Moynihan, Paul Powell. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.