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Why Trump's 'class-action lawsuit' is so hard to take seriously

Trump claims to have filed a "class-action lawsuit" against Twitter and Facebook, but it looks an awful lot like a fundraising gimmick.
Image: President Trump Holds Roundtable With Governors On Reopening Small Businesses
President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House on June 18, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

Donald Trump has spent years peddling conspiracy theories about social-media companies and their nefarious liberal schemes, with assorted vows to exact revenge against tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter. This morning, it appears the former president took some kind of legal action against his perceived foes.

Former President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he is filing a class action lawsuit against tech giants Facebook and Twitter — along with their CEOs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey — because of bans imposed on him and others.... He spoke from behind a lectern bedecked with an insignia designed to look like the presidential seal and in front of a backdrop reminiscent of a White House portico.

These optics wouldn't ordinarily be especially relevant, but in this case, the former president -- who likes to pretend he won the election he lost -- is engaged in a theatrical display that extends beyond a sketchy lectern, insignia, and backdrop.

What Trump is selling is a strange myth that social-media companies -- including Facebook, which is an integral part of the conservative media ecosystem -- are quietly pulling the strings to hurt far-right voices and causes. The former president used buzzwords at this morning's announcement that Republican conspiracy theorists no doubt recognized: "We're demanding an end to the shadowbanning, a stop to the silencing, and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing, and canceling that you know so well."

There's little to suggest such behind-the-scenes tactics are real, but conservatives have nevertheless convinced themselves that they are victims of Silicon Valley and rascally executives who are out to get them.

To that end, Trump's apparent lawsuit claims that Facebook isn't really a private-sector entity, but rather is a "state actor," connected somehow to the government, that cannot impede speech under the First Amendment.

It's a difficult pitch to take seriously. Right off the bat, it's an open question as to whether this is a real case that will proceed in earnest. Trump has a lengthy history of making legal threats that evaporate into nothing, and time will tell whether this little exercise will actually be litigated in court.

What's more, it's not yet clear what the case is even supposed to be: it's been billed as a "class-action lawsuit," though we don't yet know what class of people Trump claims to be representing.

Of course, even if the lawsuit is real, it's easy to imagine Trump pulling the plug on the endeavor once he realizes that he'd have to give sworn testimony -- about his Jan. 6 misconduct, among other things -- as part of the litigation.

Complicating matters just a bit more, there have been related cases along these lines, and they've all failed: private social-media companies are not arms of the government, judges have ruled, and they have the authority to regulate content. Similarly, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects companies from such lawsuits, still exists, Trump's incessant whining about the provision notwithstanding.

So why bother? Why go through the motions with a misguided public-relations stunt, rooted entirely in dubious claims and conspiracy theories that don't make any sense?

There's no great mystery here: "Before Mr. Trump was done speaking, both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee had sent text messages about the lawsuit and asked for contributions. Mr. Trump's political action committee sent its own solicitation shortly after the event ended. 'Donate NOW,' it said."

I don't doubt that many will fall for this. Republican voters who've been conditioned to believe that Twitter and Facebook are big meanies toward conservatives will likely grab their credit cards to show their support for Trump and this pointless exercise.

But that doesn't mean this lawsuit has merit; it means the opposite.