Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have clashed over how to tackle misinformation on their social networks, escalating tensions between the founders of Facebook and Twitter as they brace themselves for an executive order from US President Donald Trump over what he called their censorship.
The White House on Wednesday night said it would sign an executive order that could roll back some of the protections that shield social media companies from liability for user-generated content, after Twitter placed factual warnings against two of Mr Trump’s tweets.
According to an initial draft of the order seen by the Financial Times, the president is seeking to restrict their legal protections from defamation lawsuits and attempt to limit their access to federal advertising money.
Ahead of the formal publication of the order, which is anticipated for Thursday, Mr Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, took to Fox News on Wednesday to criticise Twitter for fact-checking Mr Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”.
Mr Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive, countered with what he called his “fact check”, defending his company’s actions in labelling Mr Trump’s Twitter posts as potential misinformation for the first time earlier this week.
“We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make,” Mr Dorsey wrote on Twitter. “This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth’. Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.”
The public spat between the founders of Facebook and Twitter comes as both companies brace for the executive order from the Trump administration that could remove social media companies’ current protections under the Communications Decency Act, which has largely allowed internet companies to set their own rules for content moderation.
Section 230 of the 1996 act, which states that providers of digital services should not be treated as publishers of information posted by others, has been the subject of years of debate between the tech industry and lawmakers. In January, Joe Biden, Mr Trump’s Democratic challenger in the presidential election, said that Section 230 should be abolished.
According to a draft of the order, which could face legal challenges, Mr Trump is seeking to strip social media platforms of Section 230 protections if they remove user content or access without giving users adequate notice or opportunity to respond, or in a way that is “inconsistent” with their terms of service.
It would also grant the Federal Trade Commission more powers to respond to claims of online bias, and aim to restrict federal advertising on the platforms according to their approach to “free speech principles”.
“Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election,” Mr Trump wrote in a Twitter post late on Wednesday. “If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!”
Facing growing pressure to do more to police Mr Trump’s contents, Twitter on Tuesday added a fact-check warning to two posts, suggesting users “get the facts” about his claims that postal voting would increase electoral fraud.
Ellen Weintraub, a commissioner on the US Federal Election Commission, posted a long series of Twitter posts late on Wednesday showing extensive evidence that there was “simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud”.
Mr Trump reacted furiously to Twitter’s move, accusing it of interfering in the election and threatening to “strongly regulate” social media companies, or even “close them down”, over what he described as censorship of conservative posts.
Shares in Twitter fell 2 per cent in Thursday morning trading after tumbling 3.6 per cent following Trump's threat on Wednesday.
Twitter has outperformed the wider US stock market in recent months, gaining 0.9 per cent since the start of the year, while Wall Street’s main S&P 500 index has shed 5.6 per cent.
Tech companies are already talking privately about launching a potential lawsuit if the order is signed as per the draft wording.
Facebook has so far not sought to put any kind of warning on Mr Trump’s postings, despite years of controversy over the accuracy of the president’s statements online.
Mr Zuckerberg told Fox News that Facebook had “a different policy, I think, than Twitter on this”.
“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” he said. “I think in general, private companies, probably shouldn’t be — or especially these platform companies shouldn’t be — in the position of doing that.”
But he also suggested the president reconsider his executive order, ahead of its planned signing later on Thursday.
“In general, I think a government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex there,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London
Get alerts on Technology regulation when a new story is published