The battle between the internet companies and the president deepens as Twitter censors White House communications in this time of crisis. Facebook employees stage a virtual walkout to protest their CEO’s commitment to free speech.
Twitter hid the original tweet behind an opt-in, warning that the tweet “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”
Trump’s statement “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” ” is a phrase attributed to Walter E. Headley, the police chief of Miami, Florida. In response to an outbreak of violent crime during the 1967 Christmas holiday season, Headley accused “young hoodlums, from 15 to 21”, of taking “advantage of the civil rights campaign” that was then sweeping the United States. On the evening of May 29, after speaking with Floyd’s family, the president said that he was not aware of the phrase’s “racially-charged history”
Twitter also disabled replies or retweeting, posting an explanation: “We try to prevent a tweet like this that otherwise breaks the Twitter rules from reaching more people, so we have disabled most of the ways to engage with it.”
The tweet’s spread will also be limited by Twitter’s algorithms, according to the company’s policy documents.
Early on Friday morning, the Trump administration responded by sending an identical tweet from the official White House account, placing Trump’s words in quotation marks, which was also hidden by Twitter in the same manner as the original.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” https://t.co/GDwAydcAOw
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 29, 2020
In contrast, Facebook is allowing posts by the president and White House to remain uncensored. On Saturday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made an unusually long post on his social media site explaining his decision to allow the president’s posts despite his disapproval.
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“I’ve been struggling with how to respond to the President’s tweets and posts all day,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. This moment calls for unity and calmness, and we need empathy for the people and communities who are hurting. We need to come together as a country to pursue justice and break this cycle.”
The Facebook CEO explained that his decision was based on the principle of free speech.
“But I’m responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression. I know many people are upset that we’ve left the President’s posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies.”
“The President later posted again, saying that the original post was warning about the possibility that looting could lead to violence. We decided that this post, which explicitly discouraged violence, also does not violate our policies and is important for people to see. Unlike Twitter, we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician. We have been in touch with the White House today to explain these policies as well.”
“I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”
Many Facebook employees include senior management reacted strongly to their boss’s stance, though choosing to express this in non-Facebook forums and without threatening to leave their jobs. Reportedly several dozen of the roughly 45,000 employees chose to not work on Monday as a form of protest. It should be noted that many of these workers telecommute and even more work from home due to coronavirus restrictions.
Andrew Crow, the head of design for Facebook’s Portal video-phone, tweeted an objection.
Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong. But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy. I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen.
— Andrew (@AndrewCrow) June 1, 2020
Jason Stirman, a member of the company’s R&D team and the former chief executive of the “mental training” app Lucid, also posted his objections on Twitter.
I don’t know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable. I’m a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark’s decision to do nothing about Trump’s recent posts, which clearly incite violence. I’m not alone inside of FB. There isn’t a neutral position on racism.
— Stirman (@stirman) May 30, 2020
In response, Zuckerberg made a pledge of $10 million on Sunday night to groups fighting racial injustice.
This current standoff between Trump and internet companies comes as part of a larger battle in which the president is threatening to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed by Congress in 1996. It says online platforms are not legally responsible for what users post. This is safeguards internet companies from being sued for libel or copyright infringement and is based on the companies acting as unbiased service providers much like phone and communication companies. The counterclaim is that by editing or by expressing a bias in posting, the companies are not acting like providers and are, in fact, acting like media services.