June 1, 2020

Chris Lewis: Regulating Social Media: It’s the Moderation, Stupid

Bio Christopher Lewis () is President and CEO at Public Knowledge. Prior to being elevated to President and CEO, Chris served for as PK’s Vice President from 2012 to 2019 where he led the organization’s day-to-day advocacy and political strategy...

Christopher J. Lewis, President & CEO, Public Knowledge


Christopher Lewis (@ChrisJLewis) is President and CEO at Public Knowledge. Prior to being elevated to President and CEO, Chris served for as PK’s Vice President from 2012 to 2019 where he led the organization’s day-to-day advocacy and political strategy on Capitol Hill and at government agencies. During that time he also served as a local elected official, serving two terms on the Alexandria City Public School Board. Chris serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Local Self Reliance and represents Public Knowledge on the Board of the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group (BITAG).

Before joining Public Knowledge, Chris worked in the Federal Communications Commission Office of Legislative Affairs, including as its Deputy Director. He is a former U.S. Senate staffer for the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and has over 18 years of political organizing and advocacy experience, including serving as Virginia State Director at GenerationEngage, and working as the North Carolina Field Director for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign and other roles throughout the campaign. Chris graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelors degree in Government and lives in Alexandria, VA where he continues to volunteer and advocate on local civic issues.


The Washington Center for Technology Policy Inclusion, 2020. President Trump’s Social Media Executive Order Violates The Voting Rights Act Of 1965. [online] Available at: https://www.washingtech.com/post/president-trump-s-social-media-executive-order-violates-the-voting-rights-act-of-1965 [Accessed 31 May 2020].

Public Knowledge, 2020. Public Knowledge Rejects White House Executive Order Targeting Free Speech On Social Media Platforms. [online] Available at: https://www.publicknowledge.org/press-release/public-knowledge-rejects-white-house-executive-order-targeting-free-speech-on-social-media-platforms/ [Accessed 31 May 2020].

Feld, H., 2020. Could the FCC Regulate Social Media Under Section 230? No. [Blog] Public Knowledge Blog, Available at: https://www.publicknowledge.org/blog/could-the-fcc-regulate-social-media-under-section-230-no/ [Accessed 31 May 2020].

Public Knowledge, 2020. Public Knowledge Responds To White House Proposal To Require FTC, FCC To Monitor Speech On Social Media. [online] Available at: https://www.publicknowledge.org/press-release/public-knowledge-responds-to-white-house-proposal-to-require-ftc-fcc-to-monitor-speech-on-social-media/ [Accessed 31 May 2020].

Related Episodes

'They Smile in Your Face: How the Internet is Unmasking Hidden Racism' with Robert Eschmann (Ep. 222)(Opens in a new browser tab)

'How Media Policies Have Helped the Far Right' with Anne Nelson (Ep. 217)(Opens in a new browser tab)

Facebook and Civil Rights: What are the Options? with Ebonie Riley (Ep. 212)(Opens in a new browser tab)

Should Americans Trust News on Social Media? with Elisa Shearer (Ep. 207)(Opens in a new browser tab)

Examining "Social Media Bias" with Jen Schradie (Ep. 199)(Opens in a new browser tab)

Renée DiResta: How to Fight the Imminent Disinformation Blitzkrieg (Ep. 175)(Opens in a new browser tab)

News Roundup      

Trump tweets mark turning point in Section 230 discourse

A tweet from President Trump last week that criticized California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order allowing Californians’ the right to vote by mail, in addition to preserving Californians’ right to vote in person if they’d prefer, has triggered a turning point in the debate around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, even though the

Centers for Disease Control recommended that election officials allow mail-in voting, specifically because of the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 disease is having on communities of color. These communities have historically been targets of voter suppression efforts.

Section 230 is the 1996 law widely seen as the heart of the internet as we know it, because it shields interactive content providers, like Twitter, Google, and Facebook, from liability stemming from content posted by users. In short, without Section 230, it would be all but impossible for Twitter, Facebook, and Google to exist: without Section 230, it would simply be too risky for social media platforms to expose themselves to liability for content that you and I, or even Trump, post.

President Trump posted the now-infamous tweet about Governor Newsom’s Executive Order on Tuesday. In it, the president alleged that sending mail-in ballots to voters would cause what right-wing politicians theorize is “voter fraud”, and that sending ballots to what the president termed “millions of people” would lead to the ballots being stolen. The president didn’t indicate how those attempting to steal ballots would even know whether ballots were inside of a person’s mailbox. Would they go to every single mailbox every single day to see if a ballot’s inside?

In any case, the president has expressed a general fear of snail mail in recent months. At the start of the pandemic, he and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin blocked funding from the $2 trillion stimulus bill that would have provided the U.S. Postal Service with billions of dollars in grants to balance its budget.

So, something’s up with the mail that this president seems extremely frightened of.

All of this culminated in Twitter, for the first time, posting a disclaimer on the president’s tweet – a blue hyperlink with an exclamation mark next to it that says, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots”. When users click the link, they’re redirected to another Twitter page listing articles discussing the factual inconsistencies in the president’s claim that mail-in ballots would lead to election fraud and voting by immigrants.

Unsurprisingly, Trump was livid when this happened. Two days later, he released an Executive Order providing for the Department of Commerce to file a petition at the Federal Communications Commission asking it to review still-unsubstantiated claims of social media companies’ alleged anti-conservative bias. The order also calls on the Federal Trade Commission to allow individuals to file complaints.

When protests began around the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who has since been fired and charged with manslaughter, Trump tweeted a comment that echoed Miami’s then-Mayor Walter Headley’s 1967 remark “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, which was met with scorn by civil rights leaders. In the tweet, the president called protesters “THUGS”, saying he’d spoken with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz “and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” (Here would be a good place to recall last summer’s Center for Investigative Journalism report that several Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia Facebook groups counted hundreds of police among their members, a report that corroborated an earlier finding by the FBI released over a decade ago that warned of the infiltration of law enforcement by white supremacists.)

Twitter followed up with the president’s “THUGS” tweet by placing a notice over it saying the tweet violated Twitter’s policy against users glorifying violence, but still allowing users to clickthrough and see the president’s tweet. The company also went on to flag tweets from Ice Cube, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, and others it deemed to have violated Twitter’s community standards.

But as far as Trump’s Executive Order to rein in social media companies is concerned, after speaking with experts like Tech Freedom’s Berin Szoka, Georgetown’s Gigi Sohn, and Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld – all of whom have been guests on the WashingTECH Tech Policy Podcast – the Hill reports that there’s a general consensus in the telecommunications public policy community that the president’s executive order is a non-starter. To make it happen, the FCC would need to undo years of precedent and essentially contradict every ruling it’s made, at least during Ajit Pai’s tenure there as Chairman, including its repeal of the net neutrality order.

On another front, Senator Ted Cruz, alleging that Twitter is violating sanctions against Iran, is calling for a criminal investigation into Twitter’s alleged preservation of accounts of enemies of the United States, like Iranian Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Also, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confessed to Fox News last week that Facebook shouldn’t be “arbiters of truth”. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Facebook Executives ignored a 2018 internal report that found the company’s algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness”. It also warned that, if left unchecked, Facebook could spread even more discord, and that bringing Facebook’s algorithms under control would disproportionately affect users espousing conservative viewpoints. Facebook never publicly released the report or even acted internally to “check” conservative misinformation. Coincidentally, the presentation came at the same time the Trump administration was just beginning its campaign to characterize social media companies as being biased in favor of liberals. Last week, House Speaker Pelosi called Zuckerberg’s non-interventionist stance a “disgrace”.

Running with the ball, Republicans in Congress are reportedly working on legislation to control speech on social media platforms by undoing the liability protections conferred by Section 230. Conservatives are pushing for the legislation even though a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit last week dismissed a lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch, the conservative legal group, and far-right activist Laura Loomer, against Facebook, Google & Twitter, alleging the companies were conspiring to suppress conservative viewpoints.

Trump creates more expansive warrantless watchlist

President Trump has moved to further circumvent Constitutionally-guaranteed due process protections by expanding a September 11th-era terrorism watchlist to include individuals who aren’t even suspected of terrorism. Newsweek reports the watchlist could grow to as many as a million names. But the Trump administration hasn’t acknowledged it’s expanded the watchlist, even though it’s required to do so under federal law. Now individuals can be included on the watchlist even if they just have family in El Salvador.

FBI ties Pensacola shooter to al Qaeda with iPhone data

The FBI says the shooter at a Pensacola naval base last December, a shooting that took the lives of 3 sailors and injured 8 others, had ties to Al Qaeda. Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani initially attempted to destroy his iPhone following the shooting, but wasn’t successful.

Initially, investigators approached Apple for help in gaining access to the phone’s data. When Apple declined, the FBI took matters into its own hands and figured out how to crack open the phone on its own.

Indigent customers not getting broadband despite large carriers’ promises

Even though internet service providers like Comcast and Charter promised free and low-cost internet to indigent residents, a lot of those residents are getting bills in the mail. The New York Times reports that customers who are supposed to have access to these programs are getting bills instead, sometimes for as much as $120. Customers have also reported not being able to get through to a customer service rep at all, much less in their native languages.

In an unusual alliance, Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly joined Democrats in calling to expand broadband service around the country. O’Rielly told The Hill’s Editor-in-Chief Steve Clemons that equipment and affordability are the main barriers to broadband.

Anonymous re-appears

Hacktivist group Anonymous, which first made an appearance during the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, has reappeared amidst protests in cities around the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd and other grievances. A Facebook group owner who claims to be affiliated with Anonymous wrote that it would soon expose the Minneapolis police departments “many crimes in the world”. Forbes reports that Anonymous apparently even took down the Minneapolis Police Department’s website.

FCC approves $16 million in telehealth funding

The FCC also approved an additional $16 million for 43 applicants seeking funding to provide telehealth services during the pandemic. The money goes to healthcare providers for things like network upgrades and laptop, and is  part of a total pool of $200 million Congress allocated for COVID-19-related telehealth programs. To date, the FCC has allocated $50 million, or just a quarter of that total amount.