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President Trump recently announced plans to launch his own social media platform called “TRUTH Social.” This puts an end to speculation that the former president would launch a social media site or some other digital platform to reach his base. The new platform made a big splash during its announcement, with only invited guests allowed as part of the soft launch. While some are quick to point to the seeming hypocrisy of TRUTH Social’s terms and conditions, the launch of this platform could be a positive development for internet regulations.
President Trump’s high profile expulsion from large social media platforms prompted robust pushback from the former president and his allies in Congress. In their view, “Big Tech” was engaged in a state-like level of censorship of President Trump and his supporters. This prompted calls to repeal Section 230, which provides legal protections for online intermediaries to make content moderation decisions. For the populist right, Section 230 represents a tool for censorship and biased content moderation decisions. President Trump’s new platform provides an opportunity to show Section 230 has been misrepresented and actually helps promote free speech and First Amendment rights.
While the stated goal of President Trump’s new social media site is to “give a voice to all,” some have been quick to point out that the terms of service for TRUTH Social do not necessarily reflect those values. For example, President Trump’s social media platform explicitly prohibits excessive use of capital letters, something the former president is renowned for in his own social media posts and online fundraising appeals. The platform also states it has the sole discretion to limit, refuse, or restrict access to their site.
This of course does not mean President Trump is violating his pledge to promote free speech online. Private companies, even those hosting online speech, have legal rights to make these decisions. The First Amendment protects both your rights to speak, as well as your right not to speak. In Miami v. Tornillo, the Supreme Court recognized this right, finding the government cannot force a private company to carry speech. The decision not to speak, or in this case, not to host speech on your privately owned platform, is just as legally protected as your right to speak.
However, Section 230, not the First Amendment, has been the main topic when it comes to content moderation. Some lawmakers believe that Section 230’s protections give “Big Tech” a get-out-of-jail free card, allowing them to escape accountability. In response, a slew of hearings and numerous pieces of legislation have surfaced to gut or significantly pare back Section 230. The overarching viewpoint in Congress has been that online platforms are not doing their jobs well enough when it comes to making content moderation decisions.
On the Left, lawmakers see social media platforms as spreading misinformation and hate speech. On the Right, claims of censorship and liberal bias routinely surface. While it’s tempting to believe that if someone “better” was making content moderation decisions, these problems could be solved, this is like a fantasy football team manager thinking if the New York Jets would just give them a call, they could turn the whole franchise around. The issues seem simple on paper, despite being extremely complex in practice.
President Trump’s new social media site will hopefully provide lawmakers concerned with “censorship” with insight on why it’s important to preserve Section 230. While private companies maintain their First Amendment rights, this does not shield them from meritless lawsuits. Litigating a lawsuit through discovery could hit the six-figure mark, a large sum for cash-strapped startups. Hackers and pranksters have already gained access to the TRUTH platform and posted obscene images, but thanks to the Section 230 liability protections, President Trump’s platform can remove this vulgar content without facing costly litigation.
While President Trump still enjoys popularity with many voters, he remains a contentious figure on the Left. In practice, Section 230 would prevent liberal activists from simply joining President Trump’s platform and attempting to drown the platform in lawsuits. Of course, First Amendment protections would mean the platform would likely not be held liable, but that would only be decided after lengthy and costly legal proceedings.
By shielding companies from being hit with an endless stream of meritless lawsuits for user-generated content, Section 230 encourages the free speech President Trump is attempting to emulate on his platform. These protections are essential for startups, like TRUTH Social, to get off the ground and create more competition online. The varying approaches to content moderation create a more vibrant online ecosystem and give consumers more options. Hopefully, President Trump’s first-hand experience with Section 230 protection will inform lawmakers on how important this legal protection is to promoting free speech online.