May 26, 2020

While a lot went on today, the day’s biggest news is that Twitter fact-checked two tweets by the president.

As states have turned to mail-in ballots to enable voting in a time when in person voting endangers lives, Trump has repeatedly attacked the idea of mail-in ballots, claiming they are designed to enable Democrats to cheat. Today he announced: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone…..” “…. living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!”

The truth is that Trump’s tweets are false, and are likely designed to pave the way for him to undermine the election if he loses. There is no evidence that mail-in ballots cause fraud, California will send mail-in ballots only to registered voters, five states already vote entirely by mail, and all states offer some form of mail-in voting.

Tonight, Twitter put warnings on the president’s tweets, telling users to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” “These Tweets contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots,” a Twitter spokesman told the magazine The Hill. Clicking on the warning leads to a page that explains the factual errors in Trump’s tweets, and to articles about the issue from fact based sources.

Trump did not take kindly to being fact-checked. “[Twitter] is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election,” he tweeted. “They are saying my statement on Mail-In Ballots, which will lead to massive corruption and fraud, is incorrect, based on fact-checking by Fake news CNN and the Amazon Washington Post…. Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”

The First Amendment to the Constitution concerns government power: it guarantees that the government cannot police what Americans say. It does not deal with private limits to speech, and Twitter is a private company. As Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe points out, Trump has this backward: Twitter’s flag on Trump’s tweets is itself protected under the First Amendment. In addition, Twitter’s flag is protected because it is demonstrably true.

Until last March, Twitter refused to fact check misinformation from world leaders. The pandemic forced a reckoning, and it announced it would remove posts, even from world leaders, if they went “against guidance from authoritative sources of global and public health information.” Since then, it has begun to enforce some rules against leaders, including labeling as manipulated an anti-Biden ad that Trump retweeted.

It has since expanded its willingness to note misinformation into areas other than the novel coronavirus.

The popular social media platform policed the president’s tweets today after the widower of a woman who died in 2001, and who is now at the center of Trump’s attempts to smear critic Joe Scarborough, begged Twitter to remove Trump’s tweets involving his wife. “I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain,” the woman’s husband wrote in a letter to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter.

Twitter’s moderators responded that the company was “deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family.” But it did not agree to remove the tweets. Instead, it said, “We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.”

Hours later, it fact-checked two of the president’s tweets for the first time.

Twitter remains the president’s favorite place to present his own version of the world to his followers. Until now, he has been able to say whatever he wants, without contradiction, setting the terms of the news cycle without pushback from journalists in real time. Losing that freedom to push propaganda would devastate Trump.

Still, Twitter apparently fact-checked his tweets on mail-in ballots because they appear directly to threaten the 2020 election. But its moderators left unchecked the rest of the disinformation coming from his account today.

——

Notes:

https://time.com/5842529/joe-scarborough-donald-trump-tweet/

https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/499638-trump-campaign-accuses-twitter-of-political-bias-after-it-fact-checks

Tribe tweets:

Letter to Jack Dorsey: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/26/scarborough-twitter-trump-conspiracy-281738

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/26/trump-twitter-label-fact-check/