In what is either one of the more ironic acts in a year full of irony or one of the more expressive power moves of the Texas legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on one social media platform that people can watch a livestream on another social media platform of him signing into law a bill that will restrict the ability of social media platforms to moderate posts on their platforms. But there is more to this new law that online content providers should be aware of.
In today’s political climate, the phrase “fake news” gets bandied about quite a bit. In addition to its more traditional meaning—news that is false, purposefully misrepresented or outright propaganda—fake news is also sometimes used to characterize any news published that the target or subject of disagrees with or dislikes. As the recent election cycle demonstrated, the proliferation of fake news has become an issue with which candidates and businesses alike must contend. But while the extent to which targeted misinformation can swing an election or otherwise affect a political environment is open to debate, for businesses, an ounce of fake can yield pounds of reputational and financial damage. The advent of social media has both catalyzed and weaponized the danger posed by all forms of fake news, and like so many technology-powered issues, the law lags behind in enacting new protections for businesses and individuals alike. Fortunately, some old causes of action may offer remedies for injuries inflicted by fake news stories.
As we previously discussed in our post “The ‘Commander-in-Tweet’ and the First Amendment,” the POTUS was criticized by the Knight First Amendment Institute for blocking certain Twitter users from his @realDonaldTrump account. According to the Knight First Amendment Institute, President Trump’s Twitter account functions like a town hall meeting where the public can voice their views about government actions and attendees cannot be excluded based on their views under the First Amendment. Therefore, according to the Knight Institute, President Trump is violating the First Amendment by blocking users based on the content of their tweets. Subsequently, on July 11, 2017, the Knight First Amendment filed suit against President Trump and his communications team on this basis.
Can you violate the First Amendment by blocking people from your Twitter account? According to the Knight First Amendment Institute, it’s possible if that account is @realDonaldTrump.
As we have mentioned before, Donald Trump’s Twitter habit has been a large part of his public persona in recent years. Unsurprisingly, his Twitter usage has continued to play a role in his presidency, at times even shaping the news cycle. In fact, the President’s tweets have garnered the attention of everyone from the writers at SNL to world leaders. The tweets even received a satirical “popup” library to commemorate Trump’s 140-character musings.
When the President of the United States, every governor, every member of Congress, and—as Justice Kagan remarked—virtually every under-30 and 35 year-old in the country has a Twitter account, it’s time for social media to be recognized as a pervasive and protectable form of speech. On Monday, during oral arguments in Packingham v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court of the United States seemed to emphatically agree. The case concerns a North Carolina law that prohibits registered sex offenders from “accessing” any “commercial social networking websites” whose membership also includes minors. In particular, SCOTUS made several statements on the nature of social media:
Political campaigns have increasingly turned to social media as a channel to reach voters. Social media not only has the power to reach audiences numbering in the billions, but it also has the power to change the behavior of its users. This far-reaching influence is nothing new—advertisers pay lots of money to use these channels to sell and market their products to targeted audiences. But, could this power be used to sway voters, and is there anything that prevents social media companies from getting into the game of politics?