Amid protests across the country, a global pandemic, and nearly a dozen primary elections, seven words on Twitter made national news. For the first time, the social media platform called out 1968 Wharton graduate and United States President Donald Trump for spreading misinformation to his 82 million Twitter followers.
“Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” the Twitter addendum read — which prompted Trump not only to accuse the platform of election rigging, but to issue an executive order aiming to weaken social media companies.
Twitter's label linked to an article entitled, “Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud,” followed by a list of bullet points refuting the claim that mail-in balloting was fraudulent.
For years, Twitter has passively watched the president use its platform as a bullhorn to antagonize political rivals and spread misinformation, including recent tweets about how Democratic governors handled Black Lives Matter protests, and how Michigan planned to "illegally" send absentee ballots to millions of citizens for this year's primary and general elections.
In response to Twitter's added correction, Trump tweeted hours later that the media platform was “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election,” and doubled down on his claim that mail-in ballots would lead to corruption and fraudulent voting.
"Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!" Trump wrote in the May 26 Twitter thread.
Trump also noted that the article Twitter linked to was contributed by, as he said, "Fake News CNN."
Twitter's methodology of linking to an article by a news organization was "not the way you go about fact-checking," Eugene Kiely, who is the director of Penn-affiliated FactCheck.org, said. When fact-checking, Kiely said it is key to cite primary sources or experts in the given field, rather than news organizations.
FactCheck.org, a project of the University's Annenberg Public Policy Center, was founded in 2003 and is an independent, non-partisan organization that aims to provide voters with accurate and fact-checked information based on politicians’ campaign ads, social media posts, speeches, and other methods of voter outreach.
In FactCheck.org’s article rebutting the information in Trump's tweets, author and Managing Editor Lori Robertson cited a University of California, Irvine political science professor who published a book about voter fraud and a law professor at the University of Maryland who is considered an expert on the subject.
“Twitter is just moving into [fact-checking]. We haven’t seen Twitter put fact-checking labels on any tweets before,” Robertson said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian.
FactCheck.org has not worked with Twitter, but it does work directly with Facebook, which has a history of fact-checking posts.
Following the 2016 election, Facebook partnered with six fact-checking agencies, including FactCheck.org, in an effort to curb the spread of viral misinformation. Kiely said the partnership came as a result of the BuzzFeed News report showing that viral fake news stories outperformed professional news in the final weeks of the 2016 election. In the weeks leading up to the election, 17 of the 20 highest performing false election news stories were overtly pro-Trump or anti-former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the report showed.
“At the time, that news was coming from God knows where — some from Russia, some from Macedonia, some from people just looking to make a buck for writing a ‘click bait’ headline,” Kiely said. “From the start, the [partnership with Facebook] was created to fact-check ‘fake news.’”
Throughout the four-year long partnership, the way in which Facebook has displayed fact-checked posts has changed multiple times.
Until December 2017, Facebook marked articles that contained misinformation with “disputed flags” that appeared beside the posts. In December 2017, the company changed its policy and began attaching “related articles” to posts deemed not to contain fact-based information.
Shortly thereafter, Facebook again changed its policy and began to conceal fact-checked posts with a transparent grey box and a warning message — which states that the uploaded post has been fact-checked by an independent fact-checking organization and contains false information. This remains Facebook's policy surrounding misinformation posts.
Facebook, however, does not permit fact-checking on politicians’ accounts.
“What I would suggest is a hybrid [of these policies], which Facebook has not agreed to do. We would bring back the reference articles for politicians, rather than applying the system that they now have in place [with the obscured post]," Kiely said. “Rather than just ignoring what politicians say, we could be able to provide Facebook with information so that they could provide reference articles for users.”
In an effort to follow through on his promise to protect the First Amendment right to free speech, Trump signed an executive order two days after the Twitter addendums had been placed, on May 28, that aims to weaken social media companies.
Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, social media sites are protected against libelous information posted on their sites. With Trump’s new executive order, however, these protections would disappear. While many initially viewed the order as an attack on free speech, Trump said by adding information to posts with false information only some of the time, Twitter is “an editor with a viewpoint."
Rogers Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that Trump’s executive order is “a government action, so it is constrained by the First Amendment, and there will certainly be legal challenges.”
He added that U.S. courts have been cautious to add restrictions to social media companies over the years, and that the executive order is “unprecedented” and “grounds for fresh debate” on the role of government restrictions on social media.
“We’re seeing mounting pressures for [social media companies] to do more,” Smith wrote. “The Libertarian spirit that characterized the early days of social media has grown less popular with the rise of fake news and hate speech.”
Conservative pundits have long claimed that social media companies unevenly target their posts and accounts, as compared to liberals, with misinformation flags and bans. Trump's executive order works alongside this claim, in that it would open social media companies to lawsuits from users posting untrue information.
“It’ll be interesting to see how far [Twitter] takes [fact-checking],” Kiely said. “It’s a big undertaking to fact-check everything on Twitter, so it’ll be interesting to see how much more fact-checking we will see from them, not just on the president, but on anyone.”
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