“Get The Facts”: How Twitter Is Making The Case Against Itself and Free Speech

Freedom_of_SpeechBelow is my column on the Twitter controversy and censorship of social media.  President Donald Trump has continued to tweet on cracking down on the riots as well as controversy over his tweets on Twitter.  Like former Vice President Joe Biden, he is now calling for the outright elimination of Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act.  While supported by many liberal members and commentators, Twitter continues to build a case against itself — and ultimately free speech on the Internet.

Here is the column:

Free speech, our defining right in the United States, seems to be dangling on social media. Twitter added warnings on tweets from President Trump, marking a major escalation of speech controls on the internet, something that has been demanded by Democrats. While the company clarified that Trump did not violate the rules, it still intervened between him and all his followers to add its own view of the truth on a political controversy.

The action against Trump on his mail voting tweets is the realization of the fear of free speech advocates. People sign up for updates from Trump, not Twitter, but the company decided to force his 80 million followers to view its own position on this issue. Imagine if a telephone company listened for errant political statements on calls to flag its business concerns.

Unfortunately, Trump added his own threat to free speech by pledging to “shut down” Twitter and others if they do not change their positions. It is akin to denouncing people without fire detectors by threatening to burn down their homes. His new executive order would seek to eliminate key liability protections for social media companies while calling for federal investigations into political bias. But without legislative support, such a crackdown on these companies is highly unlikely to succeed. However, Congress has been angling to curb online free speech for years.

Curtailing free speech has now become an article of faith in many circles. News host Don Lemon told Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey to “stop hiding behind the First Amendment” and censor Trump. Democrats such as Representative Adam Schiff sent letters to social media platforms to demand greater regulation and removal of certain statements that are seen as misleading, which many of us warned is a potential abuse of free speech. Former Vice President Joe Biden added his voice to the call this week for Twitter to remove any statements deemed to be false.

The choice to target a political statement on Twitter was no accident. This is precisely the type of statement that Democrats have been searching for years with threats of a federal takeover. During one hearing, Senator Mark Warner boomed that “the era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.” That intolerable Wild West is the existence of an area of relatively unregulated free speech. Indeed, like those pioneers of democracy, many people have gone on social media to speak their minds openly.

That frontier of free speech may now be vanishing. On the mail voting tweets, Twitter dispensed with any discernible standard to intervene in political exchanges. Speech regulation will evidently go back in time to retroactively mark unreliable views. The website archive service called Wayback Machine claims it will label articles as “disinformation” when faced with views it deems false or misleading. Now there will be both censorship and retroactive action taken against past thoughts.

The mail voting tweets from Trump are based on a widespread view of the dangers of using such a system on a large scale basis in an election. This concern was certainly raised when multiple ballots for a primary race next week were mailed mistakenly to several voters across Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Officials have said barcoding will prevent anyone from voting more than once.

Such insistence of Trump that mail voting is “substantially fraudulent” is unsupported, while there are good faith arguments that mail voting may increase participation in an election. Yet it is also just as unsupported to suggest there is no danger in sending ballots to every home to be filled out without supervision or confirmation. Some households will receive multiple ballots, including for some who may be uninterested. The only reliable way to confirm mail voting fraud would be to do what no state could do and demand that voters must verify who they voted for.

The danger of stolen mail ballots is probably less pronounced, since such criminal acts would likely produce traceable multiple votes if the victims sought to vote in person or by other means. Then there are the concerns over ballot harvesting, where a third party can collect such ballots. Some Democrats want to make ballot harvesting legal across the nation.

If races in swing states like Pennsylvania prove as close as expected, that increase in mail ballots may pose challenges. We have never relied to this extent on mail ballots with at least 40 million voters able to use them. The logistical or criminal interruptions may undermine our faith in the election results. The prospect of using this novel system this fall is stressful. There is a relatively short window, as we saw in 2000, between Election Day and the required certification before inauguration. The reliance on mail voting, therefore, may trim the period for challenges and delay the results.

I do not believe the sweeping claims of fraud any more than I believe the sweeping dismissals of concerns. This is an important matter for debate. Yet Twitter has labeled one side of that debate to be presumptively false. That is why this concern is not about free elections but free speech. The warning tells Trump followers to “get the facts” about mail voting. When you click the added link, it takes you to a page that says Trump made an “unsubstantiated claim” that mail ballots will lead to voter fraud.

The issue is whether websites will label other views as unreliable. Would Wayback Machine label all those false tweets from Democrats that claim evidence of Russian collusion in the 2016 election? What about all those tweets on the discredited dossier? We have learned that several Obama officials testified privately that they had never seen evidence of Russian collusion. Indeed, the Twitter standard seems to mean intervention with claims that Schiff had “ample evidence” of Russian collusion. Would his followers now be warned to “get the facts” on Russian collusion?

The executive order to eliminate protections for companies is precisely the type of retaliation that some Democrats have threatened in the past. Indeed, it may bring an involuntary response from Democrats to oppose the very crackdown they previously threatened. They could also defend the free speech rights of Twitter despite not wanting recognition of free speech rights for the companies in cases such as Citizens United.

There is, however, an alternative. These companies could return to being neutral forums for free speech, and Trump can return to using rather than regulating social media. Otherwise, before they seek to engage with their friends and followers on social media, citizens should first “get the facts” on free speech before it dies with the cheerful chirping of a tweet.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

40 thoughts on ““Get The Facts”: How Twitter Is Making The Case Against Itself and Free Speech”

  1. It’s interesting, Professor…, it’s clear you stand for curbing free speech in certain instances on your blog here. Not that there isn’t a place for a strong editorial hand. This blog is cultivated to a contrarian, siding on the right, ideological social influence machine. Very effective I might add as you draw a largely right wing crowd, everything from libertarians to abject racists talking about the Boogaloo fixin’ to jump off. This is who you speak to (and we can have the discussion of how surrealism applies to why the white suppremicists use an originally urban, black expression –jump off– to refer to the advent of their coming race war wet dreams).

    But I’m curious…, leaning rhetorically on a free speech at all costs talking point, (while not being entirely enamored of it on your own blog) would tend to side with electorally discounting an out of date electoral college wouldn’t it?

    Now, I know that’s not what you’re saying. Just playing devil’s advocate with you. Then again, isn’t that what you’re doing with this Trump getting corrected on twitter fixation? And isn’t it all just about deflection? I mean, ordinarily it’s just a figure of speech to talk of fiddling away while the city burns…, but this weekend it’s not. We’re taking things literal. The cities *are* burning.

    Twitter finally correcting Trump on a couple of his voracious lies just somehow doesn’t pertain. Maybe it’s time to focus on whether consciously taking advantage of social media platforms to lie constantly isn’t something to be concerned about. Seems, no matter what the law states, there has to be a corresponding desire to speak and communicate in good faith. Clearly, the country has a president who does not believe that.

    And, oh yeah, the cities are literally burning.

    1. Turley has learned to use the “Bill Barr summary” method. Only point out what they want pointed out, the other facts may be left out on purpose.

  2. “That frontier of free speech may now be vanishing. ”

    It’s been vanishing for a long time already. I’d say at least ten years of the demo and their left wing crackdowns. One thing after another, jamming their crud down everyone’s throats and taking away what we like and want.

    ___ I have a dream_______
    If it all gets hammered off and I see the FBI warning page at every former facebook link (news and feeds and share and shadow manipulation), and youtube (everything manip and banning and demonitizing) as well, then see “domain for sale” in a couple days, I’ll be satisfied the demolibs have learned their lesson. Also the shrieks of the associated stocks plummeting to zero or one penny will be very satisfying.

    After their servers are seized comes the investigation. Cooperate and you’ll be back online sooner…and you will be rewriting your software in front of us and you will be restoring every R type you banned unfairly, and they will be compensated – that will be shoved through something similar to FISA – a SECRET R COURT that slams the judgement down. Guess you shouldn’t have pulled that crud with your secret algo’s
    because a secret algo is now reaming your every file and dollar.

    Yep. Way to go libbydems…. you totally blew it again.

  3. It’s ridiculous. Multiple voters in one household voids this idea forever.
    Show up in person and provide a CLOSED VIEW BOOTH like we used to and sometimes still do.

    Enough of this stupid naked democracy. We have a SECRET BALLOT for reasons.
    Also it is YOUR RIGHT to drop your ballot in the box, or insert your ballot in the machine that sucks it in to count it. No election persons fingers should be grabbing it lest the magicians union wins the race unfairly.

    Thus, home to home ballot collectors need to be IMMEDIATELY OUTLAWED everywhere. (yes I know.. good luck with that for 50 states)

    I can’t even believe this crud going on. You don’t get to even TOUCH my ballot after I vote and before I insert it in the machine/box. Keep your CROOKED FINGERS OFF MY BALLOT.

    When the counting and checking ensues no “one party rooms”.

    The amount of illegal voting going on without being caught must be ridiculous. Then we have the glitchy electronic screen voting. Also a major problem the dems were having fits over but they shut their yaps so they’ve been stealing with that too.

  4. Worse, on Covid-19, there are contradictory “official” truths, and Twitter and the others are censoring any dissent (but the WHO said not to wear a mask, but every restaurant I go to…). We need a good debate with reason, evidence, references.

    And no one can even mention that Illinois Chiropractor, Eric Charamella. Talk about someone being disappeared.

    Sec. 230 doesn’t include “hate speech” as something which can be moderated, much less technical discussions.

  5. Why would you downplay mail-in voting fraud and issues? You don’t have a balanced view. Rather, you seem to display a flippant attitude toward protecting the integrity of our elections. Your words betray you. It would not be a far reach to label you a Left-wing political activist.

    “28 Million Mail-In Ballots Went Missing in Last Four Elections”

    The missing ballots amount to nearly one in five of all absentee ballots and ballots mailed to voters residing in states that do elections exclusively by mail.


    1. When they say “went missing”, they mean the ballots were not mailed back, not that ballots that were mailed were lost before they were counted. Given how low our voter turn out is, that is not that surprising. There is also no evidence of voter fraud.

  6. In the First Amendment, “Congress” isn’t allowed to abridge free speech, private companies are allowed to have rules which Facebook and Twitter do that apply to everyone else in the United States. Once again, Trump is apparently above rules that apply elsewhere. This isn’t a free speech issue in this case, it’s about his ability to lie, defame, and threaten.

    1. A dependent, parasitic and spurious beneficiary of illegitimate, unconstitutional and improperly ratified “Reconstruction Amendments” imposed under the duress of brute military force, unconstitutional generational welfare, affirmative action privilege, forced busing, food stamps, rent control, social services, minimum wage, unfair fair housing laws, discriminatory non-discrimination laws, quotas, WIC, TANF, HAMP, HARP, HUD, HHS, etc., etc., etc., pontificates about the right of constitutional enemy propagandists and indoctrinators to claim and exercise dominion over private property, while denying the freedom of speech to President Donald J. Trump, characterizing it as to “lie, defame and threaten” as the dependent lies, defames and threatens.

      The private property of Americans is confiscated for the purposes of redistribution of wealth to parasites, while the communists enjoy unqualified claims and dominion over their private property, sufficient to censor the free speech of Americans.

      The freedom of speech only applies to those who speak that which the communists dictate.

      “The thing is, you see what you wanna see and you hear what you wanna hear.”

      – Harry Nilsson, 1968

      Ain’ts America great?

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