Silicon Valley tore up the playbook for dealing with Washington DC. Now Facebook, Twitter and Google are bracing for turbulence.

Trump executive order

  • Twitter’s move to label certain tweets from President Trump has triggered a reckoning for social media platforms, which have generally spent the last few years placating politicians.
  • Snapchat followed suit, removing Trump from its Discover page, and Facebook is now weighing future changes.
  • As the November election gets closer, platforms are being forced to decide what risks they’re willing to take politically.
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Silicon Valley’s social media giants have spent the last few years cozying up to Republicans in Washington, DC, having private dinners with President Trump, honoring Ivanka Trump at a technology association event,and loading up on right-leaning lobbyists and policy shop heads. Then Twitter started re-writing the playbook.

By appending a simple “fact-check” label to a couple of Trump’s tweets last month, Twitter instantly provoked the fury of its most controversial user and switched up the rules of engagement that dictate how Big Tech cultivates influence and advances its interests in Washington. 

Now, with a pivotal presidential election months away and the internet companies themselves among the hot-button issues on the campaign trail, the stakes have never been higher for companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. Faced with a bi-partisan attack on the regulatory framework their businesses are built on, internet companies are under pressure to form new strategies and alliances in Washington — a process that could reshape the platforms’ policies and features for years to come.

“Content moderation decisions have angered constituencies on the right and the left,” said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group that lobbies on behalf of tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Intel and Uber. 

“Difficult calls about borderline content have complicated relationships,” he says. 

On Wednesday, the Justice Department unveiled its plans to limit the liability of internet companies. And Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican who’s made fighting with Big Tech a signature issue, has introduced a bill that would allow people to sue internet platforms over accusations that they selectively censor political speech.

Internet companies are bracing for confrontation — this week Twitter hired Jim Baker, a former FBI agent involved in the investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign, to be its new deputy general counsel. And CEOs of Facebook, Google and Amazon are preparing to testify in Congress this summer.

“Tech policy shops typically spend the summer before an election finalizing their convention footprint, debate sponsorships, and product demos for campaign staffers,” says Niki Christoff, a longtime high-level tech policy staffer in DC who has worked at Salesforce, Google, Uber and on the late Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid.

None of that is happening right now. “Instead,” Christoff says, “social media companies are agonizing over whether or not a sitting president is in violation of their community guidelines or Terms of Service, and what the heck to do about it.”

A lightning rod issue 

Politics has always been a delicate business for technology platforms, which spend millions lobbying governments all over the world every quarter for policies that won’t hurt their business models, impede their expansion, or cost them too much money in regulatory compliance or taxes. 

The heat has been turned up in recent years though, as high-ranking tech executives have found themselves explaining their actions on Capitol Hill, addressing concerns about antitrust, privacy and artificial intelligence. 

By far the biggest lightning rod for internet companies is the content they allow or don’t allow on their sites, subjecting them to accusations of bias from all sides.

“How does a company deal with rhetorical pressure on the right and left about content decisions?” says one former Google policy staffer. “I don’t think there is a playbook for that. Every company is muddling its way through.”

Jack Dorsey

Within days of Twitter’s move adding labels to Trump’s tweets, the President issued an executive order seeking to roll back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the part of the law that protects internet companies from liability over user content. 

Whether the order achieves any real change in policy is almost besides the point, say some tech policy experts.

“[The order] is partly theatrical. It will also have the intended effect that every content moderation manager who takes down misleading or threatening partisan content must worry about being personally excoriated from the Oval Office. That’s not mere theater,” said Schruers. 

The internet companies have a mutual interest in preserving Section 230, which has allowed them to turn platforms for user generated content into businesses worth hundreds of billions of dollars. 

But instead of acting in lockstep, the various social media platforms are responding in their own ways. Snapchat has been the most forceful, with CEO Evan Spiegel declaring that the app would no longer promote Trump’s posts in its Discover feature. 

Facebook’s priorities are not Twitter’s

Facebook has taken the opposite tack, maintaining a hands-off approach to posts by public figures like Trump — a move that has only further fractured tech’s conventional policy alliances.

Washington groups that have historically received funding from Facebook are already pushing back — the Open Technology Institute, part of the left-leaning New America Foundation, announced this week it will no longer accept Facebook funding in response to their policies on Trump’s speech. Public Knowledge, another left-leaning group, announced the same. 

Both of those groups are part of a sphere of influential DC groups that hold panels and influence lawmakers, with many of their employees coming from jobs on Capitol Hill and often testifying before Congress.

Evan Spiegel Mark Zuckerberg

Some in the tech industry say Google and Facebook have less room to push back on Trump as they face potential antitrust action from the Justice Department and state attorneys general who are reportedly preparing lawsuits for this summer. 

“If you’re worried about other government regulation actions, you’re probably going to want to avoid angering the people who can accelerate them,” said Evan Engstrom, executive director of Engine Advocacy, a group that lobbies on behalf of tech startups, of Facebook’s hesitance to take action on Trump’s content in a similar way Twitter and Snapchat have done. “For a lot of platforms that are more well-funded, [Section 230] is a less important threat than antitrust.”

Facebook and Google declined to comment. A Snapchat spokesperson pointed to its statement on not promoting Trump’s content on its Discover platform. Twitter VP of public policy and philanthropy for the Americas, Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, reiterated in a statement the company’s efforts to provide context around problematic content, but did not comment on the company’s broader thinking about government relations.

“Twitter saw the end of the road”

Still, there are signs Facebook may be adjusting staffing to reflect a possible Democratic administration after November. In March, Anant Raut, a Democrat who previously worked on tech policy on Capitol Hill for the Senate Judiciary Committee, started as Global Head of Competition Policy in Washington. 

Raut also previously worked for the Justice Department reviewing mergers during the Obama administration and as an antitrust attorney in private practice. 

One tech platform employee in DC said that hire signals a willingness to at least think more progressively about constructive policymaking, which is notable given that competition is such a fraught issue for Facebook.

The head of Facebook’s policy team remains two well-known Republicans, Kevin Martin, a former FCC chairman, and Joel Kaplan, who is widely perceived to be responsible for pushing Facebook’s policy decisions to avoid alienating conservatives. Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos has said that “a core problem at Facebook is that one policy org is responsible for both the rules of the platform and keeping governments happy.”

Facebook, which has increased its lobbying efforts in Washington in past years, also helped set up a political advocacy group named American Edge this spring, a nonprofit that aims to drum up support in Washington for the technology industry, the Washington Post reported in May. That marks a shift from previous tactics, like two years ago when Facebook turned to Definers Public Affairs to attack company critics on its behalf.

President Donald Trump and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

The practice of making sure the administration is happy, which Facebook has done repeatedly, may not save tech from regulation in the end. 

“Twitter was the first to realize that there’s not much benefit to catering to the administration. The administration is not going to help ward off changes to Section 230 protections,” said one tech platform employee in Washington who asked not to be named. “Twitter saw the end of the road, especially as the administration’s political fortunes changed. The calculus of working with them changed. It introduced more risk than necessary.”

Despite the public face-off between Twitter and Trump, some Republicans on Capitol Hill say they’re still hopeful for policymaking with Twitter. 

“All these things aside, there will still be productive relationships,” said one Republican Hill staffer.

“On the surface, [these fights] make people irritated, but by and large, there are still ways to find paths forward, though I can’t speak to what the White House has been like.”

And even if Joe Biden wins the presidential election, tech’s policy problems wont’ go away, although the debate over how to regulate the industry will change, says Nu Wexler, a former DC staffer at Twitter, Facebook and Google. 

“If Trump loses, President Biden won’t attack them at 6 in the morning but the big companies will still have to deal with substantive criticism related to privacy and competition,” he said. “The antitrust and political bias rhetoric is just the Trump campaign working the social media refs. They’re going to test content boundaries this year, and they want the platforms to think twice about taking action against them.”

SEE ALSO: Trump has officially declared war on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s the latest on the executive order targeting social media and the reaction at internet companies.

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