On June 3, 2020, Snapchat decided to stop promoting the Snapchat account of Donald Trump on its Discover page, which provides a feed of stories from celebrities and other popular profiles that are curated by Snapchat for its users. Trump's account was regularly featured in Snapchat's Discover page in the past, according to the New York Times. Snap, the parent company of the popular Snapchat app, said that the President’s account would remain available on Snapchat for people to follow, but it would not be highlighted on Snapchat’s Discover any more.
“We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover,” the Snap spokesperson explained. The decision follows a company-wide email sent by CEO Evan Spiegel following the mass protests of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd. Spiegel wrote (without referring to Trump): "As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform." The decision by Snapchat indicates that a person who incites racial violence on or off Snapchat may be disqualified from the Discover page.
In the midst of the pandemic, online outreach on social media platforms may play a more important role than ever. During the primaries, Democrats Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang used Snapchat to draw a crowd. Trump has over 80 million followers on Twitter, 15 million on Snapchat and 20 million on Instagram. In May 2020, the Trump campaign told Bloomberg that it valued Snapchat as a platform to fill all the institutional gaps in reaching the young audience, many of whom will be voting for the first time in the 2020 election.
Snapchat's decision follows Twitter's flagging of Trump's tweets. In May 2020, Twitter labeled two of Trump’s tweets regarding mail-in-ballots as “potentially misleading," and another one about the protests following the killing of George Floyd as potentially glorifying violence (in the statement "when the looting starts, the shooting starts"). Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale lambasted Snapchat's decision: "Radical Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel would rather promote extreme left riot videos and encourage their users to destroy America than share the positive words of unity, justice, and law and order from our President." Parscle accused these social media companies of rigging the 2020 campaign by “illegally using their corporate funding to promote Joe Biden and suppress President Trump,” he said, “if you’re a conservative, they do not want to hear from you, they do not want you to vote.” [source]
In response to Twitter’s move, Trump issued an executive order that aimed at weakening the protection of social media platforms under Section 230. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields websites from civil liability for content shared by users on their platforms, with some exceptions such as intellectual property infringement. Directing the Federal Communications Commision to revisit Section 230, Trump said: “We're here today to defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly. . . A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States . . . They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.” The Department of Justice also issued recommendations to reform Section 230. (We've summarized the Executive Order and Department of Justice recommendations here.) Congress is also considering several bills to amend Section 230, proposed by Republican lawmakers.
Where the debate over politicians' posts and Section 230 heads is hard to predict. Some Republican lawmakers are eager to scale back Section 230's immunity and to require a kind of "political neutrality" on Internet platforms as a prerequisite to ISP immunity. The concept, though, is vague. Under this approach, is an Internet company's policy or community guideliness against hate speech, glorification of violence, or misinformation permissible? Or is the concern that Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook are selectively applying their community guidelines in a biased manner only against Republican politicians? If so, what evidence supports this assertion?
The debate over Section 230 raises a larger question about the role of Internet platforms. One conception that is being advanced is that Internet platforms must be neutral public forums and permit basically whatever users want to post (outside of some narrow exceptions). Another conception being advanced is that Internet platforms have a responsibility to moderate their sites--as "Good Samaritans" as Section 230 states--removing objectionable and unlawful content, including for copyright infringement, terrorist and hate speech, misinformation related to elections and voter suppression, and content inciting violence. A related question is whether politicians should be subject to the same community guidelines as all users or should they be exempt? With Snapchat's decision, along with the recent decisions by Twitter and now Facebook, Internet companies are increasingly choosing to treat politicians the same as everyone else.
-written by Candice Wang