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Twitter labels Trump’s tweets with a fact check for the first time

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 26/05/2020 Elizabeth Dwoskin

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a flag: Twitter labeled the president's tweets with a fact-check for the first time. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Twitter labeled the president's tweets with a fact-check for the first time. Twitter on Tuesday slapped a fact-check label on President Trump’s tweets for the first time, a response to long-standing criticism that the company is too hands-off when it comes to policing misinformation and falsehoods from world leaders. 

The move, which escalates tensions between Washington and Silicon Valley in an election year, was made in response to two Trump tweets over the past 24 hours. The tweets falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. Twitter’s label says, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” and redirects users to news articles about Trump’s unsubstantiated claim. 

The tweets, said Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough, “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”

In a statement, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said, “We always knew that Silicon Valley would pull out all the stops to obstruct and interfere with President Trump getting his message through to voters. Partnering with the biased fake news media ‘fact checkers’ is only a smoke screen Twitter is using to try to lend their obvious political tactics some false credibility.“

For its 14-year existence, Twitter has allowed misinformation by world leaders and everyday citizens to spread virtually unchecked. Its leaders have long said that users would engage in debate on the platform and correct false information on their own.

But Trump has made dozens of false claims on social media, particularly on his preferred medium of Twitter, and has also attacked people in ways that critics have argued could violate company policies on harassment and bullying.

For example, Twitter faced a barrage of criticism earlier Tuesday over another set of Trump tweets. The widower of a former staffer to Joe Scarborough asked Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey to delete tweets by President Trump furthering a baseless conspiracy theory about the staffer’s wife’s death. Those tweets are still up, a reflection of an approach to policing content that can appear inconsistent or incremental even as the companies have stepped up their enforcement.

The company is debating whether to take action on the Scarborough tweets, said a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorised to speak publicly about the deliberations.

Its much larger rival Facebook, by contrast, launched a fact-checking program several years ago. Facebook funds an army of third-party fact checkers to investigate content, which then gets labeled on the site and demoted in its reach. However, Trump posted the same content about mail-in ballots on Facebook. Facebook did not respond to a question about whether it would label or remove it.

Twitter, which has roughly 330 million users compared to Facebook’s 2.6 billion, has not had the resources or the institutional will to engage fact-checkers.

But Twitter has radically changed its approach during the pandemic. In March, the company revised its terms of service to say that it would remove posts by anyone, even world leaders, if such posts went “against guidance from authoritative sources of global and public health information." That includes comments claiming that social distancing is ineffective or essential oils can be used to cure the disease, for example.

Soon after, for the first time, Twitter applied the policy to world leaders, removing tweets by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, arguing that the tweets about breaking social distancing orders and touting false cures had such potential for harm that labeling them would be insufficient.

In March, Twitter labeled a manipulated video of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden that was retweeted by Trump. That same month, Facebook took down a misleading ad about the U.S. census., one of two times that Facebook has taken action against the Trump campaign.

Then earlier this month, Twitter rolled out a new policy saying that it would label or provide warning messages about covid-related misinformation, even when that information is not a direct contradiction of health authorities and does not violate the company’s policies. The company said at the time that it may expand the labels to other issue areas, such as other types of health-related hoaxes or other situations where there is a risk of harm. Tuesday’s tweets on elections represent an expansion into a new area of election-related misinformation.

As a matter of policy, Twitter and other tech companies hold world leaders to different standards than everyday users. The content of world leaders is kept up by Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube, even when it violates company policies, a practice known as the “newsworthiness exemption.”

That policy has long been subject to criticism because comments by world leaders can have massive impact on people’s behavior and the potential to cause harm. President’s Trump’s recent promotion of the drug hydroxychloroquine as an experimental treatment for covid, for example, caused prescriptions and drug sales to soar.

If Trump had instructed people to take the drug outright, the statement would probably have been taken down by both Facebook and Twitter, according to people who work there who were not authorized to speak publicly. Instead the president walked a fine line, promoting the benefits of the drug and saying he was taking it himself.

The World Health Organisation has halted studies of the drug out of concern that it causes more harm than good.

Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.

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