Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with President Trump's Twitter page shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with President Trump's Twitter page shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Why Trump's Social Media Executive Order Is Troubling, Bizarre, and Dangerous

Here’s the social media accountability we actually need.

Emily Peterson-Cassin

On Thursday, President Trump took an ill-informed potshot at the U.S. Constitution in the form of an executive order purportedly designed to bring social media companies to the president’s heel. In reality, the order’s chief purpose is to soothe the president’s ego. Its chief effect must not be to draw our attention away from bringing real accountability to companies that have violated our civil rights and damaged our democracy.

Issued in response to Twitter appending mild fact checks to a few of the president’s tweets containing misinformation about voting, the order issues some tepid (and constitutionally questionable) directives to federal agencies. The Commerce department is tasked with petitioning the Federal Communications Commission for a rulemaking dealing with how much immunity platforms should have when they make content-moderation decisions. Complaints about political targeting are directed to the Federal Trade Commission. Federal agencies are asked to review their social media ad spending. But the meat of the order is hot-headed rhetoric about the First Amendment, designed to call criticism down on those the president believes are his enemies.

"All the sound and fury surrounding the order must not leave us too divided to fix some of the messes these companies have made entirely aside from those concerns."The order sparked a flurry of discussion surrounding what relationship internet platforms should have to freedom of speech, and some of those discussions are valuable. But all the sound and fury surrounding the order must not leave us too divided to fix some of the messes these companies have made entirely aside from those concerns.

Internet platforms have threatened our civil rights and privacy, stifled competition, and damaged our democracy. They have been called out and even sued for the way their system of targeting advertising limits fair access to housing, credit, and employment decisions. They continue to allow the spread of misinformation related to core democratic activities such as the census and voting by mail. Even when they do face consequences for privacy violations, those consequences fail to bring significant change. In addition, big tech platforms are under investigation for anti-competitive activity by multiple federal and state agencies, and by Congress.

There are solutions out there. Congress needs to pass a federal baseline privacy law that empowers states to think creatively about the solutions that work for their residents while providing some basic guardrails about how our private information can and cannot be used by corporations. Congress should also mandate more disclosure for political advertising on the internet. The FTC should scrutinize big tech mergers and anti-competitive behavior more carefully, and should impose real consequences for violations of our privacy. The platforms themselves should take steps to provide more transparency around how content is targeted, and they need to do more to curb misinformation on their sites.

"What's really dangerous about orders like this is that they feed erroneous opinions about what the U.S. Constitution is and what it does, in service of a mere political ploy."

Of course what’s really dangerous about orders like this is that they feed erroneous opinions about what the U.S. Constitution is and what it does, in service of a mere political ploy. A great example from a few years ago was the so-called “Religious Freedom” executive order, which the president repeatedly and falsely claimed repealed the law that keeps 501©(3)s from engaging in partisanship. That order contained a lot of high-flying rhetoric designed to appeal to a segment of the president’s base, but continues to  fuel misunderstanding of what the law actually says, and even whether it remains in force at all. The executive order from early in Trump’s presidency requiring that the infamous “wall” be built along the U.S. border with Mexico is another example of a purely performative, but nevertheless damaging, order. We can’t lose sight of how damaging that kind of posturing is simply because it seems to happen so often.

We need real accountability for the damage online platforms have done to civil rights, competition and our democracy—not more hollow and inflammatory rhetoric.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Emily Peterson-Cassin

Emily Peterson-Cassin is the digital rights advocate for Public Citizen.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Huge Victory' as Judge Blocks Biden's Oil Lease Sale in Gulf of Mexico

"The Biden administration must end new leasing and phase out existing drilling," said one advocate. "Anything less would be a gross failure of climate leadership."

Jake Johnson ·


'Utterly Shameless': Former Democratic Senators Join Fossil Fuel Lobby Group

"This is climate denial and shameful bullshit," scoffed one scientist. "Also the future for Manchin and Sinema."

Brett Wilkins ·


'When You Don't Change People's Lives, People Get Upset,' Says AOC

To reverse slump in Democratic approval ratings, the congresswoman said Biden should start by cancelling student loan debt.

Julia Conley ·


Sioux Tribe Withdraws as Cooperating Agency Over Dakota Access Pipeline Threat

"The prospect of an oil spill during such low water is truly scary," says the tribe's Water Resources Department administrator.

Jessica Corbett ·


New Report Shows How US Transportation System 'Fuels Inequality'

Favoring cars over public transit has "consequences for racial and economic justice, the environment, and more," the Institute for Policy Studies warns.

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo