Trump’s Tweets, Section 230 and PR Challenges

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We’ve heard a great deal lately about Section 230, a formerly somewhat obscure part of the Communications Decency Act passed in 1996. The section simply states:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

In lay terms, this means if I post something on Facebook (or Twitter, etc.) that could be the cause of legal action — think libel — and I’m not acting on behalf of the property where I post this information, the social media network cannot be held legally liable. This is a departure from traditional media, where the insulation is far from absolute. That is, if a traditional newspaper were to print a letter to the editor that was legally defamatory, they could possibly be held at least partially responsible for damages in a lawsuit. Not so for Twitter, Facebook or other social media outlets. 

So this raises a question: if Twitter, for example, cannot be held liable for what a member says, why did they take the extraordinary step of banning former president Donald Trump from the platform? 

Beyond legal liability, Twitter and many other social media platforms are claiming they are working to curtiail obvious misinformation. Those who are being “de-platformed” are crying censorship (which really doesn’t apply to non-government entities, but that’s a topic for a legal blog). 

While I won’t even try to litigate or solve this complicated and evolving issue here, I do believe this battle will continue to manifest itself in uncertainty, as well as some changes that may or may not stick long term, in social media communities. This does, however, raise some important considerations for communications pros working in social media. For example:

  • What might get an individual or a company suspended or even de-platformed? Today, it takes some fairly egregious posting to get there. Moving forward, those guardrails could get far tighter and far less predictable, requiring constant vigilance. The line between “safe and boring” and “you’re suspended” is likely to become less clear in the coming months.
  • Expect reactions to posts from the community, not just the platform itself, to be heightened. It’s possible a post that might have received a small negative reaction a couple of years ago could explode into controversy today. You don’t have to limit your posts to vanilla corporate speak (in fact, you shouldn’t) but look at every post even more carefully than ever before. 
  • Watch the news and be ready to change. A joke that was both funny and appropriate on Jan. 5, 2021, may very well fall flat and at worst prompt serious backlash during the insurrection on Jan. 6. Holidays and milestones like 9/11 are easy to avoid, but today’s news cycle can present us with a new “date to remember” in a matter of hours. If you use pre-programmed posting, be ever-vigilant and ready to adjust at a moment’s notice. 
  • Thanks to the additional awareness and coverage of this situation, a Facebook mistake may not remain just a Facebook mistake. Several of first-year Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s posts and videos have become fodder not just online, but on CNN, in The Washington Post and more. Just about the last thing a communication group needs is for an attempt to start a positive conversation to go sideways and put the team into full-on damage control.

Social media launched a revolution just a few short years ago and continues to be a moving target for communicators. Recent events will clearly accelerate changes and bring on entirely new possibilities of rules and regulation, both from the platforms as well as potentially from the government. Staying abreast of developments and constant re-evaluation of everything from overall programs to individual posts is more critical than ever. 

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