Trump’s executive order attacking social media companies faces its first legal challenge

Clay Curtis
June 3, 2020

Several civil rights groups ripped Facebook and its two most prominent executives, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, for not covering up President Trump's posts with warning labels, in the same way Twitter has in the last week.

Zuckerberg is setting "a very unsafe precedent", read a statement from the organizations, which included the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Color of Change.

In a statement later posted to Facebook, Zuckerberg said he chose to leave Trump's post up because the site should "enable as much expression as possible". Taking her message a step further, Zhu then called on other Facebook employees to "organize" in opposition of the company's official policy.

"Mark is setting a very unsafe precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook", the three leaders added.

Still, the Center for Democracy and Technology's lawsuit contends that the order "clouds the legal landscape" and puts social media companies on notice that if content moderation decisions are made that displease Trump, executive action could follow.

On Friday, the president had posted a message with the words "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" in response to protests over the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis.

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In mid-May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had reduced the company's ability to moderate content on its social networks due to its limited use of human moderators. Trump is one of the most popular, influential users on services including Facebook and Twitter, but he is also one of their most controversial - attacking critics and spreading falsehoods that might have run afoul of those companies' rules if he did not serve as the commander-in-chief.

"It's crystal clear today that leadership refuses to stand with us", the engineer Brandon Dail tweeted Tuesday.

This reasoning has garnered scorn from USA civil rights leaders, three of whom spoke with Zuckerberg and his top lieutenant Sheryl Sandberg on Monday evening. "It is an important moment to listen, and we look forward to continuing these conversations", said another Facebook spokesperson.

The report notes that part of the discussion involved Zuckerberg's decision to ignore and dismiss comments made by Donald Trump about police brutality protesters - with one Black leader calling the exec's explanation "incomprehensible".

"My first reaction [to Mr. Trump's post] was just disgust", he said. "This is not how I think we want our leaders to show up during this time". But though Zuckerberg acknowledged the statement's racist historical antecedent, he said that the company has a policy of allowing state actors to warn the public about the use of force. "I think there's a good argument that there should be more bounds around the discussion around that".

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