The social network Twitter has twice moderated messages posted by US President Donald Trump, angering the head of state. - Doug Mills / CNP / AdMedia / SIPA

  • Twice last week, Twitter decided to accompany some of the President's publications with prevention messages.
  • Donald Trump denounced the “interference” of the platform and responded by signing a decree aiming to modify the status of simple “content host” of these networks.
  • Called to react, Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook criticized the strategy of Twitter and explained why the two messages posted by Trump on his site had not been deleted or reported to Internet users.

Never had the showdown been so keen. By taking the decision on May 26 to act on a message from the American president published on its platform, the social network Twitter launched a complex debate and angered Donald Trump. Should digital giants, alone, have control over the content disseminated on their site? Should they become “arbiters of the truth” or, on the contrary, claim a simple status of “content host”?

All these questions are now crossing the United States in a context of polarization of the political debate, accentuated by the epidemic of coronavirus and the riots and demonstrations linked to the death of Georges Floyd. If Twitter claims and assumes its choice to "moderate" the publications of the Head of State, Facebook believes on the contrary not to be in its role by modifying or recontextualizing the messages posted by Donald Trump. How did this subject arise across the Atlantic and why? What strategies have the different actors chosen to adopt and what consequences could they have? 20 Minutes  takes stock.

  • What event is behind this standoff?

Tuesday, May 26, the 81 million Internet users subscribed to Donald Trump's Twitter account were surprised to discover a bluish phrase under a message posted by the American head of state. The mention "verify the facts" was attached to this tweet in which the president denounces the "fraudulent" nature of the postal vote in the American electoral process. By clicking on this mention, the Internet user is redirected to several press articles demonstrating why this assertion is largely exaggerated.

Screenshot of Donald Trump's Tweet with the mention - Screenshot

“This device had been around for several weeks and was launched as part of the coronavirus crisis. Twitter wanted to take action against fake news, fake news about the epidemic. It is the first time, however, that the device has been used for Head of State on a subject other than that linked to Covid-19, ”explains Tristan Mendès France, a teacher at Celsa specializing in new digital uses.

In a long blog post published on May 11, two Twitter executives explained that the platform was indeed considering adding this mention for subjects other than those related to the virus. If the president's message was neither deleted nor concealed, the mere mention of verification was enough to anger Donald Trump.

On May 29, Twitter hit the nail on the head by deciding to hide a message from the President. Reacting to the clashes in Minneapolis after the death of a black man George Floyd, asphyxiated by police, Donald Trump wrote: "The looting will be immediately greeted by bullets. An expression considered to be likely to incite violence.

Screenshot of the Donald Trump Tweet about the Minneapolis protests hidden by Twitter. - Screenshot

Believing that the message violated the rules of Twitter and participated in "glorifying violence", the platform chose to moderate the content leaving the choice to the user to click to see the tweet appear. Never since his arrival at the White House has Donald Trump been subjected to such a policy of moderation on the part of the site.

  • Why did Twitter decide to act on Donald Trump's publications?

Strongly criticized by the American president and his supporters, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, initially spoke about the mention of “fact-checking” relating to the postal vote. "We will continue to point out any incorrect or disputed information relating to the electoral process. We will recognize our mistakes if we make them. This does not make us "arbiters of the truth". Our intention is simply to compare all of the disputed claims with other sources of information so that everyone can then judge for themselves, ”he said. A position which testifies to a more frontal engagement recently engaged on this subject by the firm, a few months before the next American presidential election.

On May 29, the communications department of the network also provided elements of response relating to the second message, this time masked by the platform: “This tweet violated the rules of Twitter relating to the glorification of violence. However, Twitter believed that its visibility may be of interest to the public. The interactions - reply to tweet, "like" or retweet - with this message have also been disabled.

For teacher Tristan Mendès France, the action of the platform is part of a context of increased polarization of the political debate in the United States: “Trump is a leading figure. He is one of the biggest users of Twitter in the world, he has a major responsibility in being the head of the first world power. It does not seem illegitimate that Twitter is looking into its account since it is one of the most influential accounts on the planet, as the platform could do with any account followed by millions of people who would hold violent comments. With increased visibility, increased responsibility ”.

  • What can the signing of the decree by Donald Trump change for platforms?

Prompt to respond, Donald Trump immediately reacted to Twitter's action by signing a decree on May 28 allowing the US telecommunications regulator, the FCC, to investigate and take action to ensure that social media do not apply political “censorship” in their moderation strategies.

This decree therefore aims to regulate a major law in the United States, "section 230" of the "Communications Decency Act" of 1996. This text offers Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Google immunity from any legal action related to the content published by Internet users and gives them the freedom to intervene as they wish on platforms.

If the decree does not yet have legislative value, the stake for social networks is major, analyzes Tristan Mendès France: "Its application would pose a gigantic problem since that would amount to saying that Twitter or any social platform would become a co-author and jointly criminally responsible. any objectionable content posted on the site. If this decree ends in law, it would be a big bang in the digital world since social networks would be forced to significantly lock all content and therefore to moderate excessively.

  • Why is Facebook's position on the subject controversial?

Contacted by the conservative channel Fox Newsin response to Twitter's strategy, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg was particularly critical. According to him, social platforms should not play the role of "arbiters of the truth online".

If his reaction was immediately welcomed by the American head of state, it was also the subject of strong criticism within the company. Several Facebook executives have publicly expressed their disagreements and called on the Facebook CEO to take action against the President's remarks. Indeed, the messages published by Donald Trump on his official Twitter account are posted identically on the President's Facebook page. But unlike Twitter, Facebook said the post about the Minneapolis riots should not be deleted.

I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we're showing up. The majority of coworkers I've spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.

- Jason Toff (@jasontoff) June 1, 2020

On May 30, Mark Zuckerberg explained, in a long message posted on his Facebook profile, the reasons which pushed the platform to maintain the post of Donald Trump relating to the suppression of the riots in Minneapolis. “The President, in a second message clarified the first by saying that he was simply alerting to the possibility that the looting resulted in forms of violence (…) thus explicitly discouraging this violence. It was felt that this content did not violate our internal policy, "wrote the CEO of Facebook.

Unlike Twitter, Facebook has implemented a strict moderation policy: either the content contravenes the rules of the site and it is deleted, or it does not contravene the rules and remains visible to users. A filter system like the one implemented by Twitter does not exist on this network.

A technical difference which effectively poses an increased risk of censorship mentioned by Mark Zuckerberg. Condemning as "personal" the "divisive and inflammatory rhetoric" of the president, the boss of Facebook wanted to insist: "I know that many people are unhappy (…) but our position is to facilitate as much expression as possible, unless there is an imminent risk of harm to others or of dangers as described in our regulations. "


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