Defying Trump, Twitter Doubles Down on Labeling Tweets

OAKLAND, Calif. — Twitter continued to add new fact-checking labels to hundreds of tweets, even as the Trump administration issued an executive order to curtail the legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for the content posted on their platforms.

Twitter’s move escalated the confrontation between the company and President Trump, who has fulminated this week over actions taken by his favorite social media service.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump signed an executive order to make it easier for federal regulators to argue that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter were suppressing free speech when they suspended users or deleted posts. The tech companies have had “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences,” he said.

But Twitter has doubled down. Late Wednesday, it added fact-checking labels to messages from Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry who had claimed that the coronavirus outbreak may have begun in the United States and been brought to China by the U.S. military.

Twitter also added notices on hundreds of tweets that falsely claimed a photo of a man in a red baseball cap was Derek Chauvin, an officer involved in the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died this week after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by police. The Twitter label alerted viewers that the image was “manipulated media.”

The skirmish between Twitter and Mr. Trump shows that a backlash against large tech companies, which had receded in the initial phases of the pandemic, is now back in full force. The Justice Department has also recently signaled that it is preparing to bring an antitrust case against Google, perhaps as soon as this summer.

The executive order “seems designed to punish a handful of companies for perceived slights,” said Jon Berroya, chief executive of the Internet Association, a lobbying group representing many of the major tech companies. “It stands to undermine a variety of government efforts to protect public safety and spread critical information online through social media and threatens the vibrancy of a core segment of our economy.”

A Twitter spokeswoman said that the tweets modified on Wednesday contained “potentially misleading content” and that the fact-checking was consistent with the company’s approach this month.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also said he would not back down from the fact-checking effort. “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information,” he wrote.

As Mr. Trump and other conservative figures have claimed that social media companies are biased against them, Republican lawmakers have proposed modifications to the statute. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has argued that to maintain Section 230 protections, social media services should be required to submit to a third-party audit to ensure their content moderation systems are politically neutral.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who wrote the law, said Mr. Trump was threatening Section 230 to “chill speech and bully” the big tech companies into giving the White House more favorable treatment.

“He’s clearly targeting Section 230 because it protects private businesses’ right not to have to play host to his lies,” Mr. Wyden said in a statement. “Efforts to erode Section 230 will only make online content more likely to be false and dangerous.”

The executive order is likely to face legal challenges.

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a policy nonprofit group, said the order appeared to be intended to limit speech on social media that disagreed with the president. That was “literally the worst case scenario that the authors of the First Amendment were afraid of,” he said.

Twitter’s confrontation with Mr. Trump has also opened new fissures in Silicon Valley. Mr. Dorsey has doubled down on fact-checking tweets, but Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has distanced his social network from that effort.

His comments were at odds with some of his own company’s actions. In the past, Facebook, too, introduced fact-checking labels, using third-party services to review potentially false information. The approach has been scattershot and uneven, and critics have argued that third-party fact checkers have been unable to keep up with the billions of pieces of content on the social network.

“We’re talking about this as if it’s about fact-checking, but it’s not,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog. “It’s about whether platforms will facilitate fraud that undermines civic engagement.”

Facebook declined to comment.

On Twitter, Mr. Dorsey fired back after Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments became public before they were aired.

“This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth,’” he said of his decision to fact-check tweets. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.”

Kate Conger reported from Oakland, Calif., and Mike Isaac from San Francisco.

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