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Twitter flags Trump’s tweets as misleading: What unprecedented ‘misinformation’ policy actually means

Twitter has added a label to President Trump's tweets that links users to fact-checking articles, but will not remove the tweets outright as it has done with other presidents

Adam Smith
Wednesday 27 May 2020 12:49 BST
Twitter puts fact-check warning on Trump tweets

President Trump’s tweets have been marked as “potentially misleading” for the first time, following the President falsely calling postal voting “fraudulent” and predicting that “mail boxes will be robbed.”

A blue link under the tweets, which reads “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” takes users to fact-checking articles from CNN and the Washington Post and a series of tweets from journalists debunking the claim.

A ‘Moment’ is a collection of tweets from multiple users about a single subject that can be easily read and shared.

While the social media site seems to be taking action against some of President Trump’s tweets, others – such as a conspiracy theory involving an MSNBC host and the death of a woman who worked in his congressional office in 2001 – remain published as normal, without any indication that .

What did Donald Trump say?

President Trump tweeted that “Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed” under a mail-in voting system and claimed that it would result in a “rigged election”.

Is this true?

Fact-checking site Snopes says that the tweet is “mostly false”. Voting fraud is slightly more common via postal voting than by voting in person, but actual cases of voter fraud is miniscule in comparison to the number of ballots cast. As such, it is “erroneous” to claim that mail-in voting would increase the risk of fraud.

What has Twitter said?

The social media site said that Trump’s tweets “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labelled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”

A Twitter spokesperson also said: "These Tweets (here and here) contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots. This decision is in line with the approach we shared earlier this month."

What was Trump’s response?

President Trump tweeted that the company is “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and “completely stifling free speech.”

Is that true?

In America, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment, which states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Private companies are not bound by the First Amendment, which only applies to government bodies. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that running public access channels is not subject to government constraints.

However, the delineations between private company and public space is becoming more nebulous as billion-dollar companies such as Twitter and Facebook become the de-facto platform for government officials.

Previous rulings have prevented the President from blocking people on Twitter because, as president, it would violate the constitution.

The ACLU has also reportedly warned against a new Twitter feature whereby users can limit who can or cannot reply to their tweets.

“Public officials would be violating the First Amendment if they were to use this tool to block speakers on any accounts they’ve opened up for public conversation in their roles as government actors, staff attorney Vera Eidelman said.

Has this happened before?

In a way. Although the specific label has not been used before, Twitter has taken action against government officials sharing coronavirus misinformation. Twitter has deleted tweets from Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuela’s left-wing President Maduro.

Bolsonaro tweeted a video where he endorsed the use of hydroxychloroquine to fight the coronavirus, a treatment that remains unproven. Maduro suggested a “natural brew” treatment for the coronavirus, which was removed.

Twitter has also previously labelled Trump’s tweets as misleading before, adding a “manipulated media” to a video the President tweeted which had been edited to make Joe Biden appear to stumble over his words.

Why have President Trump’s tweets not been deleted?

The social media site has not deleted Trump's tweets because of its 'misleading information' policy, which it updated last month. The policy states that labels will be used "to provide additional explanations or clarifications in situations where the risks of harm associated with a Tweet are less severe but where people may still be confused or misled by the content".

Previously, the company has defended the existence of the president on its platform – despite using the account to share conspiracy theories and threatening nuclear war against North Korea and Iran – because “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate”.

“It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions,” the company wrote in a 2018 post.

Last year, the company doubled-down on this choice to leave tweets such as these published, although it would hide them behind a different label.

"There are certain cases where it may be in the public’s interest to have access to certain Tweets, even if they would otherwise be in violation of our rules. On the rare occasions when this happens, we'll place a notice – a screen you have to click or tap through before you see the Tweet – to provide additional context and clarity" Twitter said.

"We’ll also take steps to make sure the Tweet is not algorithmically elevated on our service, to strike the right balance between enabling free expression, fostering accountability, and reducing the potential harm caused by these Tweets."

Is Twitter going to label more tweets?

This also remains unclear. President Trump has tweeted other conspiracy theories, such as the aforementioned, unsubstantiated claim that a news host, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, was involved in the death of Lori Klausutis in 2001.

A coroner’s report found that Ms Klausutis had an undiagnosed heart problem, which led her to faint and hit her head on a desk.

Ms Klausutis’ widow wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asking him to remove the tweets. “My request is simple: Please delete these tweets,” he wrote, citing that they violate Twitter's community rules and terms of service, and that an ordinary user would be banished from the platform for such an offence. “My wife deserves better,” Timothy Klausutis concluded.

“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family.” Twitter said in a statement. ”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.“

What are other social media websites doing?

Facebook hosts the exact same content from President Trump, but will not take actions on his posts. Trump posted the message about mail-in fraud on his Facebook page, where it received 170,000 reactions and was shared 17,000 times.

Despite Facebook’s policy of removing content which misrepresents ways of voting or voter registration, the company will not take action against the President. In a statement, it said: “We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote.”

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