Twitter fact-checks Trump, but will it do any good?

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

When Twitter said earlier this month that it was making some changes to “limit the spread of potentially harmful or misleading content” by adding warning labels to tweets, one of the most obvious questions was whether the company would apply the labels to Trump’s various misinformed tweets. On Tuesday, we got the answer, when labels were added to two tweets posted to Trump’s account on the topic of mail-in voting ballots. The labels appeared just below the text of the tweet, with a hyperlink that said “Get the real story on mail-in voting.” The link took users to a collection of tweets with facts about the topic, curated by Twitter staff into what the company calls a Moment. The move was greeted with cheers in some quarters, while Trump and his supporters — including his son Donald Jr. — angrily tweeted about how the company was clearly trying to manipulate public opinion in advance of the federal election. Trump even promised to “strongly regulate, or close them down,” despite an obvious lack of any federal ability to do this.

On the one hand, it’s a tiny victory in the ongoing battle to stamp out misinformation online. After years of being accused of spreading lies, propaganda, and other noxious substances through its network, and of doing little to stop it, Twitter finally seems to be taking some baby steps towards responsible curation (Facebook said it would not take similar action because it believes that “people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process”). But at the same time, Twitter’s move is like taking a tiny drop of poison from a very large ocean and putting a label on it saying “for more information about poison, click here.” In fact, Twitter’s decision to add this kind of warning label raises as many questions as it answers. To take just one example, social researchers have found that fact-checking can cause what is known as the “implied truth effect,” where users assume that because one specific statement has been fact-checked and found to be false, others that haven’t been fact-checked must be true.

As a number of observers pointed out after Twitter added the label, the way that the company chose to phrase it was also imperfect. Saying “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” could be interpreted by some as adding weight to the misinformation rather than debunking it. Researchers such as Whitney Phillips of Syracuse University and Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center often talk about the risks inherent in calling attention to misinformation, in part because doing so can amplify the incorrect info and cause it to travel much farther than it would have otherwise. Many wondered whether Twitter users would even bother clicking on the link, let alone read the facts in the Twitter Moment. Activist Charlotte Clymer said that Twitter’s label “is the most mild form of accountability” imaginable. The warning doesn’t say Trump is wrong or misleading people, she noted, and most people would probably scroll by without even noticing. “It’s weak and cowardly.”

Late Wednesday, Trump told reporters flying with him on Air Force One that he would issue an executive order today on social-media companies, but no details were given about what this order would include. It’s not the first time the president has threatened something of this kind: last August, the White House issued a draft executive order that called on the FCC to develop new regulations clarifying how and when the law should protect social networks when they remove content from their services, but nothing ever came of it. A number of legal experts told Associated Press that his threats to “regulate or shut down” social-media companies are likely empty. “This is an attempt by the president to, as we used to say in basketball, work the refs,” said Jack Balkin, a Yale University law professor and First Amendment scholar. Former federal judge Michael McConnell, who now heads the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford, told the AP that Trump lacks the legal power to back up his threat. “He has no such authority,” he said in an email. “He is just venting.” 

Whatever the likelihood of success, Trump loyalists did their best to drum up the appearance of imminent action against the company, and also singled out a Twitter employee on the safety and security team who they blamed for the fact-checking label, digging up several of his past tweets. Republican Senator Josh Hawley published a letter he sent to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey saying the company’s decision to “editorialize” about the content of the president’s tweets raises questions about whether the company should continue to be protected from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Both Hawley’s statement and a similar one from Republican Senator Marco Rubio show a fundamental misunderstanding of what Section 230 does, as a number of legal experts pointed out. The law was specifically designed to allow the platforms to moderate their content however they chose. Conservative regulators have been pushing to take away this protection for some time.

Here’s more on Trump and Twitter:

  • Unfixable: Evelyn Douek, an SJD student at Harvard Law School and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center on Internet and Society, argues in a piece for The Atlantic that “Trump Is a Problem That Twitter Cannot Fix.” Democracy, she says, “is based on the idea that voters should have access to information about who their candidates really are and what they believe. This remains true even (or, perhaps, especially) when those beliefs are abhorrent.” Also, Douek argues, in a world where Twitter is but one of many megaphones at a public figure’s disposal, the supposed benefit or efficacy of removing such content is debatable.
  • Leverage: Nu Wexler, a former spokesman for Twitter, noted on Twitter that apart from inventing new laws, Trump actually has a lot less leverage over the company than he might have over Facebook or other social platforms. The service doesn’t carry political advertising, it’s not big enough to qualify as an antitrust threat, and Trump is “clearly hooked on the platform,” Wexler said. The gov’t can’t prevent social platforms from fact checking or moderating content so Trump is left with (a) ginning up press coverage about his threats or (b) using DoJ or regulatory agencies to intimidate companies, which politicizes their current investigations.
  • Ammunition: There have been repeated calls to ban Trump from Twitter during his presidency, including more than two years ago in 2018, after he had picked what appeared to be a childish fight with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un over whose nuclear arsenal was larger. At the time, CJR wrote that despite the impulse to block Trump from using the service, the downside of such a move would be significant, including the fact that it would hand the alt-right and conservative movements in the US a giant gift: more ammunition to argue that  social media platforms are out to get conservative voices.

Other notable stories:

  • Emily Maitlis, an anchor on the BBC show Newsnight, was temporarily replaced as host on the show.  She was reprimanded by BBC management for attacking the government’s handling of the Dominic Cummings affair in her monologue. Cummings, a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, caused a storm of criticism when he left the city to drive to his family’s country house despite a quarantine. BBC managers said Maitlis breached impartiality rules with her opening remarks, in which she said that “Dominic Cummings broke the rules — the country can see that and it’s shocking the government cannot. The longer ministers and the prime minister insist he worked within them, the more likely the angry response to the scandal is likely to be.”
  • Instead of linking to stories at the New York Times site or that of the Atlantic and other publications, Matt Drudge’s news site has been linking to an obscure website owned by an unknown party that routinely publishes plagiarized versions of news articles from those sites, according to a report by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman. Since November, the links on the Drudge Report have sent roughly 8 million pageviews to the site, according to data from analytics service SimilarWeb, which BuzzFeed says “has likely earned significant revenue for its owner, who has taken steps to hide their identity.”
  • A number of senior staffers at Chicago’s CBS affiliate WBBM have lost their jobs, according to a report from Chicago media writer Robert Feder. Those who were hit by layoffs include Pam Zekman, one of the city’s premier investigative reporters, as well as the channel’s morning news anchor Erin Kennedy, sports anchor Megan Mawicke, meteorologist Megan Glaros, and reporters Mike Puccinelli and Mai Martinez. Additional staffers, including some outside of the news department, were expected to be notified before the end of the day.
  • News Corp Australia is poised to cut hundreds of jobs as it stops printing as many as 100 small community newspapers and moves towards digital-only publishing, according to a report in the Guardian. The executive chairman of News Corp Australasia has hinted the company is on the brink of upheaval, saying last week it was evolving from “a network of newspapers to Australia’s leading journalism network.” According to the Guardian, sources say the cuts could be as high as thirty percent of the staff across the entire company and that many will be layoffs rather than voluntary redundancies.
  • Researchers with Stanford’s Internet Observatory have published a report looking at how the “Plandemic” conspiracy theory video went viral. The team analyzed 41,662 posts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter starting on April 15, when anti-vaccine and natural health Facebook pages had begun to promote author Judy Mikovits and her new book, which forms much of the basis of the video. “Social-media dynamics suggested that Mikovits’ narratives were now being marketed for far larger mainstream audiences,” the Stanford researchers say, and eventually “a well-oiled PR machine propelled the discussion of her claims into larger communities like MAGA and QAnon.”
  • The company that publishes the Toronto Star, one of the leading dailies in Canada’s largest city, has been sold to a group controlled by two businessmen for $52 million. The newspaper was founded in 1892 by printing-press workers who were locked out during a dispute with the owners of another newspaper. Joseph Atkinson bought the Star two years later and ran it until his death in 1948, after which the paper was managed by a group of five families according to progessive standards known as the “Atkinson principles.” The two businessmen buying the paper — which at one time had a market value of close to $2 billion — have said that they will uphold the paper’s commitment to the Atkinson principles.
  • Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Washington Post, writes about the newspaper’s union, which just signed a contract extension. The union “has far more delicate challenges than most,” says Nolan. “Consider the confluence of forces buffeting the Guild. It has the normal demands of trying to improve wages and working conditions for members in a contracting industry. It faces, on one side, the virtually limitless power of a zillionaire owner who does not like unions and also owns some of the most powerful and newsworthy companies in America—and, on the other, a US president who hates and denounces the newspaper itself, and who also hates and denounces the owner of the newspaper.”
  • A group of independent journalists in Canada has launched Indiegraf, a network of journalists, entrepreneurs, and community-owned publishers who will share the resources necessary to launch and grow small, independent news outlets. Co-founder and chief executive Erin Millar, who created an independent news outlet called The Discourse, says the idea behind the network is to give journalists who want to start their own news entities the advantages of being part of a larger chain — “access to capital, a proven model, technology, and infrastructure to support their growth, without the burden of the big chains’ debt obligations, executive compensation, legacy business models and editorial directives.” Indiegraf is being funded in part by Google’s News Initiative, as well as Facebook’s Journalism Project.
  • The Information, a subscription technology-news site founded by former Wall Street Journal writer Jessica Lessin, is offering what it is calling a “News Summer School,” for journalists who want to learn from senior executives and writers for leading publications like Politico, the New York Times, and the Texas Tribune. Lessin says the company is offering a free four-week bootcamp, with eight hour-long evening classes. The “courses” offered include Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown on covering the White House and the 2020 election, and New York Times media writer Ben Smith on “reporting in public” in the digital age.

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