People For the American Way

“Trumptastrophe”: Freedom for me but not for thee edition

News and Analysis
“Trumptastrophe”: Freedom for me but not for thee edition

Welcome to our weekly “Trumptastrophe” series that serves to remind us of the destructive policies, decisions, and actions we encountered during the Trump presidency and the threats that he and others in the MAGA movement still pose – and to keep those moments clear in our memory as we fight to defeat Republican extremists during the upcoming elections.

This week’s Trumptastrophe focuses on former President Trump’s rocky relationship with social media. Indeed, although social media was one of the very tools responsible for his rise to prominence within the Republican Party, Trump and right-wing conservatives often attack social media companies when their content is removed or flagged for violating each platform’s policies regarding what they consider to be acceptable content. This stormy relationship has led to conservatives calling for the weaponization of the Federal Communications Commission if Trump were to be reelected so they can penalize companies unwilling to allow their lies and misinformation to be broadcast to their users:

On May 27, 2020, Trump threatened to “strongly regulate” social media companies or “close them down.” Trump was angry about Twitter putting fact-checking notes on two “potentially misleading” tweets in which he made unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballots and voter fraud.

Just one day after his threat, Trump signed an executive order that Human Rights Watch called “a profound attack on online freedom of expression globally” by targeting “companies that displease government.” The order included typically Trumpian whining about his tweets having been flagged as inaccurate. At a press event announcing the order, he complained even more, calling fact-checks a form of “political activism.”

The day after Trump issued his executive order, he used his Twitter account to warn that he would deploy the military against people protesting George Floyd’s killing by a police officer, and threatening, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter labeled it with a notice saying it violated the platform’s rules against glorifying violence.

Four years later, Trump and his advisers are vowing that if he gets back into power, he will “come after” big tech companies and media outlets whose moderation policies and political coverage he doesn’t like.

Trump complained in 2020 that social media companies were silencing conservative voices, a frequent complaint from right-wing figures. There was never much substance to the claim, and it is particularly ridiculous now that X/Twitter under the leadership of Trump fan Elon Musk has proudly re-platformed the disinformation-spewing former president, along with far-right figures who promote white nationalism, antisemitism, and other forms of extremism.

Trump’s 2024 campaign team is in fact deploying a “troll army” to attack his enemies on social media. Right Wing Watch noted earlier this year that Trump’s trolls are led by an “overtly racist, unapologetically misogynistic, and gleefully amoral” online activist called Brenden Dilley.

Trump’s 2020 executive order charged the Commerce Secretary with asking the Federal Communications Commission to define standards for evaluating whether social media companies were applying “good faith” in moderating content, and threatened companies with legal action. It sought to ban federal agencies from advertising on platforms deemed to be biased against conservatives. In response, one FCC commissioner said Trump wanted to turn the commission into “the president’s speech police.”

The White House told reporters that some of the ideas in Trump’s order grew out of a “social media summit” Trump held the previous summer with a clown car of far-right online personalities. At that event, Trump gave what The New York Times called “his own unique interpretation of the First Amendment,” saying it’s “not free speech” if “you see something good and then you purposedly write bad.” Afterward, he told supporters that tech companies were, like “the FAKE NEWS media,” an “enemy of the people.”

You don’t have to be part of the MAGA movement to have concerns about the power wielded by huge tech firms and the influence of their platforms and algorithms. Protecting free speech and preventing harm and harassment are a complicated balancing act. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that tech companies could not be sued by family members of a victim of an ISIS terror attack for having failed to keep ISIS content off their platforms. There have been bipartisan calls in Congress to revisit regulation of tech platforms.

In response to current congressional efforts to do away with provisions contained in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protect tech companies from liability for what others publish on their platforms and protect them against legal action for moderating content, the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote this month that “Section 230 is about free expression” and warned that repealing the section without a clear alternative in place would “threaten user’s free expression rights and exacerbate the very problems some in Congress seek to solve.” New America has suggested alternatives for addressing online harms.

Trump and his advisers don’t seem that interested in policy nuance. Trump adviser and far-right ideological warrior Steve Bannon has called the people who run tech companies “evil” and “sociopaths.” Attacking “big tech” and the media are reliable ways to get applause at MAGA gatherings.

Trump’s allies at Project 2025 vow that under a likeminded president, they will seize control of any sources of independence in the executive branch that might slow the imposition of the president’s will. Project 2025’s policy agenda says its top priority for the FCC will be “reining in Big Tech,” which they accuse of trying to “drive diverse political viewpoints from the town square.” And, in a show of Trumpian contempt for checks and balances, Project 2025 calls on the FCC to issue an order interpreting Section 230 differently than courts have.

As Bruce Maiman noted in a HuffPost column, “Control of all federal branches would mean control of the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television, radio and internet companies. You can imagine an effort to neutralize the power of a media that routinely has exposed Trump’s well-documented lies and improprieties.” Indeed, it doesn’t take much imagination when you have Trump advisers threatening to “come after” the media, and Trump himself vowing to “come down hard” on MSNBC and “make them pay for their illegal political activity.”

These are just some of the reasons we need YOU in this fight. So, find your favorite way to unwind after reading through this week’s recap, and then make a plan for how you will fight back this week, this month, this election cycle.


Donald Trump, Trumptastrophe, Twitter