As the bombshell that Elon Musk has bought Twitter continues to hit the headlines in U.S. and international media, it is also fueling some unverified and potentially misleading narratives.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gives his opening statement remotely during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing with big tech companies October 28, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is discussing reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty
Shortly after the purchase was announced, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement, which did not address the deal directly, but said that President Joe Biden “has long talked about his concerns about the power of social media platforms, including Twitter and others, to spread misinformation.”
Many conservative and libertarian users hailed the purchase of the platform by Musk, a staunch defender of the First Amendment, as a victory for free speech and immediately pounced on the White House statement as a turn towards censorship.
“Elon Musk buys Twitter and Psaki immediately announces the White House is already looking into reforming section 230. Are y’all paying attention yet?🤷🏾♀️” Florida Republican congressional candidate Lavern Spicer tweeted.
That phrasing was echoed in dozens of other tweets.
“Notice how nobody gave a crap about Section 230 until Musk bought Twitter. You can’t make this up,” another Twitter user wrote.
“Jen Psaki said yesterday that Biden supports reforming Section 230 and enacting anti-trust reforms. @elonmusk buying Twitter is going to expose these ‘progressives’ for who they are. You’re going to see an unprecedented attack on our First Amendment. They’re in a panic!” wrote GOP congressional candidate Errol Webber.
A post on r/Conservative subReddit similarly tied the Twitter deal to the White House announcement that it says reflected attempts to implement “the globalist agenda” through censorship.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content, thus protecting publishers from lawsuits targeting user-generated content (with some exceptions that include violations of federal criminal laws).
The issue of reforming Section 230 has recently garnered some bipartisan support in Congress, but remains controversial, with some saying the law is outdated and others calling it a key pillar of free speech on the Internet.
Critics have argued that continuing to give self-moderation rights to platforms that have grown exponentially since the 90s, and now give voice to hundreds of millions of users, is irresponsible, while its defenders say any attempt to remove or change it amounts to government overreach.
But while this debate on a controversial and complex issue isn’t likely to end any time soon, the claims that Biden targeted Section 230 because of Musk’s Twitter purchase are not supported by evidence.
While Psaki did indeed make a statement alluding to Twitter—in response to a reporter’s question—it does not signify any tangible shift in the position of Biden himself, or the White House, on the issue.
Brittany Caplin, the Assistant Press Secretary at the White House, told Newsweek in an email that it is not a new position at all—it has been a longstanding position from the President.
“Even on the campaign trail, then-candidate Biden said that he would look to reform Section 230,” Caplin wrote. “Jen Psaki has also mentioned this in briefings last year. We did not announce anything new yesterday, Jen simply restated our position on Section 230.”
Indeed, there are several past statements in the public domain that confirm Caplin’s claim.
“I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them [social media platforms] being exempt, which you’re not exempt,” Joe Biden said in The New York Times interview in January 2020.
“[The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.”
Biden’s desire to see Section 230 reformed was affirmed in a White House press briefing on October 6, 2021.
Psaki said at the time: “Well, the President has long said…that tech platforms must be held accountable for the harms that they cause. And he has been a strong supporter of fundamental reforms to achieve that goal. This includes Section 230 reforms.”
It was reiterated at another press conference a month later on November 19.
Moreover, this is one of the few positions shared (though for different reasons) by President Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump.
Then-president Trump issued an executive order targeting Section 230 and social media companies in May 2020, as his feud with Twitter escalated.
The order, which was meant to bypass Congress and the courts, demanded that regulators redefine Section 230 more narrowly, and even called on agencies to gather complaints of political bias that could justify a clampdown on legal protections.
“Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor,” Trump said in the executive order.
Notably, Biden revoked the executive order upon being elected, without elaborating on the reasons. But Psaki did state in one of the recent statements that the administration was looking at a number of reforms that would include “privacy and antitrust reforms as well as more transparency.”
“That should also be on the table. And he looks forward to working with Congress on these bipartisan issues,” the White House statement said.
The claim that the White House suddenly began targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act because of concerns about Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter is misleading. While Jen Psaki did indeed allude to the issue in responding to a question from a member of the press, Joe Biden’s position on the need to reform the law remained consistent since before he was elected. And Donald Trump, the previous White House occupant, largely shared that view.
FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK
Joe Biden’s critics accused him of going after the controversial section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code in response to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Musk (pictured) has long championed online free speech, which some fear would be curtailed if the law was repealed.
Photo illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images