Ahead of the election, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube promised to clamp down on election misinformation, including unsubstantiated charges of fraud and premature declarations of victory by candidates. And they mostly did just that — though not without a few hiccups.
But overall their measures still didn't really address the problems exposed by the 2020 U.S. presidential contest, critics of the social platforms contend.
“We’re seeing exactly what we expected, which is not enough, especially in the case of Facebook,” said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor of journalism and media at the University of North Carolina.
One big test emerged early Wednesday morning as vote-counting continued in battleground states including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. President Donald Trump made a White House appearance before cheering supporters, declaring he would challenge the poll results He also posted misleading statements about the election on Facebook and Twitter, following months of signaling his unfounded doubts about expanded mail-in voting and his desire for final election results when polls closed on Nov. 3.
So what did tech companies do about it? For the most part, what they said they would, which primarily meant labeling false or misleading election posts in order to point users to reliable information. In Twitter's case, that sometimes meant obscuring the offending posts, forcing readers to click through warnings to see them. For Facebook and YouTube, it mostly meant attaching authoritative information to election-related posts.
For instance, Google-owned YouTube showed video of Trump’s White House remarks suggesting fraud and premature victories, just as some traditional news channels did. But Google placed an “information panel” beneath the videos noting that election results may not be final and linking to Google’s election results page with additional information.
“They’re just appending this little label to the president’s posts, but they’re appending those to any politician talking about the election," said McGregor, who blamed both the tech giants and traditional media outlets for shirking their responsibility to curb the spread of misinformation about the election results instead of amplifying a falsehood just because the president said it.
“Allowing any false claim to spread can lead more people to accept it once it’s there," she said.
Trump wasn't alone in attracting such labels. Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis got a label on Twitter for declaring a premature reelection victory in North Carolina. The same thing happened to a Democratic official claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden had won Wisconsin.
The flurry of Trump claims that began early Wednesday morning continued after the sun rose over Washington. By late morning, Trump was tweeting an unfounded complaint that his early lead in some states seemed to “magically disappear” as the night went on and more ballots were counted.
Twitter quickly slapped that with a warning that said “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” It was among at least three such warnings Twitter applied to Trump tweets Wednesday, which make it harder for viewers to see the posts without first reading the warning; it did the same on a post from another individual that Trump sought to amplify.
Much of the slowdown in the tabulation of results had been widely forecasted for months, because the coronavirus pandemic led many states to make it easier to vote by mail, and millions chose to do so rather than venturing out to cast ballots in person. Mail ballots can take longer to process than ballots cast at polling places.
In a Sept. 3 post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that if a candidate or campaign tries to declare victory before the results are in, the social network would label their post to note that official results are not yet in and directing people to the official results.
But Facebook apparently limited that policy to official candidates and campaigns. Posts by others that declared premature overall victory in specific states were not flagged.
Twitter was a bit more proactive. Based on its “ civic integrity policy,” implemented last month, Twitter said it would label and reduce the visibility of Tweets containing “false or misleading information about civic processes” in order to provide more context. It labeled Trump’s tweets declaring premature victory as well as claims from Trump and others about premature victory in specific states.
The Twitter and Facebook actions were a step in the right direction, but not that effective — particularly in Twitter’s case, said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor at Syracuse University and social media expert.
That’s because tweets from major figures can get almost instant traction, Grygiel said. So even though Twitter labeled Trump’s tweets about “being up big,” and votes being cast after polls closed and others, by the time the label appeared, several minutes after the tweet, the misinformation had already spread. One Wednesday Trump tweet falsely complaining that vote counters were “working hard” to make his lead in the Pennsylvania count “disappear” wasn't labeled for more than 15 minutes, and was not obscured.
“Twitter can’t really enforce policies if they don’t do it before it happens, in the case of the president,” Grygiel said. “When a tweet hits the wire, essentially, it goes public. It already brings this full force of impact of market reaction.”
Grygiel suggested that for prominent figures like Trump, Twitter could pre-moderate posts by delaying publication until a human moderator can decide whether it needs a label. That means flagged tweets would publish with a label, making it more difficult to spread unlabeled misinformation, especially during important events like the election.
This is less of an issue on Facebook or YouTube, where people are less likely to interact with posts in real time. YouTube could become more of an issue over the next few days, Grygiel suggested, if Trump’s false claims are adopted by YouTubers who are analyzing the election.
“Generally, platforms have policies in place that are an attempt to do something, but at the end of the day it proved to be pretty ineffective,” Grygiel said. “The president felt empowered to make claims.”