President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday to empower federal regulators to crack down on social media companies like Twitter and Facebook and potentially take away the legal protections that shield them from liability for what gets posted on their platforms.
Mr. Trump and his allies have often accused Twitter and Facebook of bias against conservative voices, and the president had been urged for years to take a harder line against the companies. He had resisted until this week, when Twitter fact-checked his own false statements in two posts.
That move by Twitter prompted an outcry from conservatives, who said that the platform should not be able to selectively choose whose statements it is fact-checking.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history,” Mr. Trump told reporters in signing the order in the Oval Office, with William P. Barr, the attorney general, standing nearby.
“They’ve had unchecked power to censure, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences,” Mr. Trump said, saying there was “no precedent” for it. “We cannot allow that to happen, especially when they go about doing what they’re doing.”
Twitter, the president said, was making “editorial decisions.”
“In these moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform — they become an editor with a viewpoint,” he said, saying that Facebook and Google are included in his critiques.
Mr. Barr told reporters that the tech companies were behaving like “publishers,” and Mr. Trump said the attorney general would work with states on their own regulations related to online platforms.
With its order, the administration sought to curtail the protections currently offered to technology companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which limits the liability that companies face for content posted by their users.
The law has enabled technology companies to flourish, allowing them to mostly set their own moderation rules for their platforms and to collect a vast corpus of free content from users against which to sell ads. The executive order is aimed at removing that shield, Mr. Trump said.
The companies, along with many free speech advocates, have maintained that amending Section 230 would cripple online discussion and bury platforms under endless legal bills.
The order could end up backfiring on Mr. Trump, who has used Twitter to lob insults at rivals and to interact freely with his supporters. But without the liability shield that Section 230 provides, social media platforms may be forced to remove posts that could be considered false or defamatory — and Mr. Trump often tests the boundaries with his commentary.
Moments after saying free speech was under attack from tech companies, the president suggested he would shut down Twitter if it were legally possible, although he acknowledged there were substantial obstacles. Mr. Trump suggested he was planning legislation to introduce to Congress about social media platforms.
Administration officials initially said the executive order would be released on Wednesday after the president said he would make an aggressive move related to social media companies. But as officials scrambled to fulfill his demand and make it legally enforceable, the time frame for releasing the executive order was changed to Thursday.
The White House did not immediately release a copy of the order. But legal experts said that the enforcement actions suggested by the president were largely toothless and unlikely to withstand legal challenges.
“We believe that free speech and the right to engage in commerce are foundational to the American free enterprise system,” an official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in an unusually pointed statement. “Regardless of the circumstances that led up to this, this is not how public policy is made in the United States. An executive order cannot be properly used to change federal law.”