Congressional Democrats are demanding that social media companies do a better job of policing threats against the FBI in the wake of the agency’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence for classified documents that he took from the White House. The issue presents a crucial test of those companies’ ability to weed out dangerous speech without trampling on the First Amendment.
If the companies don’t respond transparently to these demands and make a stronger effort than they are currently making to detoxify their sites, they risk losing the unique protections they enjoy under federal law. That, in turn, would put at risk even legitimate online discourse.
Social media has transformed America in many positive ways. But the same internet megaphones that spread useful information and empathy can also spread disinformation and violence. Russian trolls may well have helped swing the 2016 presidential election to Trump. Four years later, Trump himself, and his most virulent supporters, used social media to incite and coordinate the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.
The court-sanctioned search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort this month for documents the former president was refusing to return to the government wasn’t the illegitimate “raid” or “siege” that Trump made it out to be on social media. But some of Trump’s less stable fans out there — no doubt encouraged by the many elected Republicans who have obediently echoed Trump’s self-serving grievance — picked up that theme and ran with it.
On Twitter, Facebook, Trump’s Truth Social network and others, they’ve called for violence against FBI agents and even civil war. One Trump supporter who apparently posted such screeds tried to get into an FBI field office in Ohio with weapons and was later killed after a standoff with police. A Pennsylvania man was arrested after his posts declared “open season” on FBI agents.
The First Amendment protects even noxious speech — but not speech that directly foments violence. Social media companies, unlike newspapers and other traditional media, are generally protected from legal action when such speech appears on their sites. That protection, contained in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is a recognition that a site such as Twitter can’t realistically police every post for threats in the way a traditional newspaper can check every letter to the editor before publication.
Without that protection, it’s unlikely such sites could continue to function. Which makes it all the more crucial that Twitter and the others beef up their screening efforts to remove threats of violence and to report them to law enforcement when appropriate. That’s the trade-off for their legal protection, and if they don’t earn it with responsible behavior, there are critics in Congress ready to take that protection away. With that in mind, it’s not only in the companies’ interest to cooperate in these inquiries but also in the broader interests of the social media-using public.