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Social media fact-checking, threats to free-speech: Virginia Tech experts weigh in

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An executive order from President Trump challenging the control that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have over content on their platforms could have implications much broader than the dispute that prompted it, says a Virginia Tech expert.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order that could challenge the immunity that tech giants have for the content on their platforms.  Already political opposition and threats of a legal challenge are emerging.

“This issue is centered around the suppression of conservative voices on social media,” said Cayce Myers, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Communication.  “However, the implications are much larger, and there are those outside of the conservative – liberal debate that also criticizes the immunity given to social media sites by the Communications Decency Act.  What is unfolding is a reassessment of the role of the internet and a recognition of its power over the dialogue in American society.”

“As this issue unfolds,” said Myers, “there will obviously be a pro and anti-Trump discussion, however, this is an outgrowth of a larger discussion about the role of the internet, social media, news, and online speech in the political discourse of the United States.

Mike Horning, an assistant professor also in Virginia Tech’s Department of Communication, said social media companies have been wrestling for years with how to find balance between limiting the spread of misinformation and supporting free speech.

“Facebook has been aggressively using third-party fact-checkers since 2016,” he said. “However, their policies tend to focus on fact-checking news and other web pages. They have stated that they do not fact-check politicians. Twitter’s decision to weigh in on Trump’s statements marks a different approach from Twitter in that sense.”

“In one sense, Twitter’s decision to provide fact-checks to Trump’s tweets are not stifling speech at all,” said Horning. “They didn’t remove the posts, but merely provided context. This provides people with the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they agree with the content. At the same time, these editorial decisions raise a number of other questions about who and what will be fact-checked by Twitter in the future and whether Twitter has the capacity to effectively fact-check in a way that will be seen as credible by the public.”