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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about an executive order regarding social media companies as Attorney General Bill Barr listens, in the Oval Office of the White House, on May 28, 2020.

JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

President Donald Trump escalated his feud with Silicon Valley Thursday, accusing tech giants of censorship and issuing an executive order threatening to end the legal protections that shield social-media companies from being liable for content published on their platforms.

Legal experts say Mr. Trump’s executive order, which essentially asks federal U.S. agencies to start policing the content-moderation policies of major tech firms, is likely unenforceable and will inevitably spark court challenges. But the move intensified a political backlash over the growing powers of tech giants that has drawn bipartisan support heading into a presidential election.

The executive order was issued just days after Twitter decided for the first time to fact-check the President. The social-media network flagged a series of Mr. Trump’s tweets that alleged that California’s plans to expand mail-in ballots for the November presidential election would encourage voter fraud.

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Twitter drew fire for posting an alert about those tweets while refusing to flag a separate series of Mr. Trump’s tweets promoting a conspiracy theory that MSNBC host and former congressman Joe Scarborough had been involved in the death of a political staffer. The muddled response and the President’s backlash have highlighted the challenges that social-media companies face in policing political speech, particularly that of Mr. Trump, who has more than 80 million followers on Twitter.

The dispute between Mr. Trump and Twitter also highlighted a growing schism among social-media companies about how far they should go to police political speech.

In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he disagreed with Twitter’s decision to fact-check Mr. Trump. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” he said.

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey shot back on Thursday to defend his company’s decision. “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally,” he wrote on Twitter. “And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make. This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’ “

The President’s executive order targets the broad protections that internet companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives websites the right to police their platforms, but also prevents them from being held responsible for content posted by users.

Supporters of the law argue it has been instrumental in encouraging the growth of the U.S. tech industry by protecting small start-ups from costly lawsuits. But as companies such as Google and Facebook have grown into international behemoths, those protections have increasingly alarmed politicians on both sides of the aisle. Republicans argue the law gives companies a licence to censor conservative voices, while Democrats fear it has allowed tech giants to avoid responsibility for the spread of misinformation and hate speech.

The law has been the focus of several recent congressional inquiries and, in February, Attorney-General William Barr told a meeting of the Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation of tech firms, that the Section 230 provisions should be re-examined.

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“Currently social-media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they’re a neutral platform, which they’re not,” Mr. Trump said Thursday. “They have a shield, they can do what they want. They have a shield. They’re not going to have that shield.”

The executive order calls on federal agencies to review their spending on social-media ads and asks the Federal Communications Commission, the telecommunications watchdog, to issue new regulations with a narrower interpretation of the law.

But legal scholars say the President lacks the power to order changes to a law passed by Congress and can’t force federal agencies to comply with requests.

“There’s actually very little of substance in the executive order,” said Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman. “But that never was the point. Like everything else the Trump administration is done, it’s far more about the atmospherics than it is about actually improving our country.”

The order also raises questions about the tech companies’ First Amendment rights, which protect individuals and companies from government censorship. And experts warn Mr. Trump’s order could help reaffirm the power of major companies such as Facebook and Google, which have the resources to comply with complex federal regulations, while harming smaller competitors.

But the executive order still has the power to send a message to Silicon Valley that there is a growing political will to curb their powers. “I think it does this signalling in an effective way to the businesses in Silicon Valley and to the supporters of the President. And maybe that’s the ultimate goal here.” said University of Buffalo law professor Mark Bartholomew.

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