On June 23, Twitter censored President Donald Trump’s tweets by attaching warning labels, including one about protesters in Portland and another tweet which said, “There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President. If they try they will be met with serious force!” This move comes after Twitter flagged two of Trump’s tweets on May 27 for violating their misinformation policies. Twitter and Facebook began censoring posts or notifying viewers if they spread egregiously false information, particularly pertaining to voting procedures for the upcoming 2020 general election.
Though it is good that social media sites, particularly Twitter, are finally working to prevent the rampant spread of misinformation on their platforms, this alone is not enough. These fact-checking provisions are limited in scope, and thus do not absolve social media users of responsibility for verifying that content they consume or amplify is factually accurate, especially when it relates to topics as paramount as the upcoming election.
First, it is important for social media users to understand the limited reach of Twitter and Facebook’s new social media fact-checking policies, both in terms of the types of posts they cover and the impact they have on online discourse. Even Twitter, the most proactive social media network with regard to misinformation, only flags and censors a small portion of false political claims, specifically ones that violate its “civic integrity policy.” This policy only covers tweets which are aimed at “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes,” and does not extend to general political falsehoods.
This is why only a small subsection of Trump’s lies, including his assertion that mail-in voting is inherently fraudulent, are flagged, while the vast majority, such as his oft-repeated claim that the U.S. only has the most COVID-19 cases in the world because of the nation’s widespread testing, remain on Twitter unimpeded. In practical terms, this means that the vast majority of false or misleading tweets go unflagged, severely limiting the impact that Twitter’s fact-checking procedures have on Trump. Considering that, the onus is still largely on Twitter users to think critically, and they cannot rely on Twitter’s narrow fact-checking policies to do that for them.
It is important to consider how much of an impact Twitter’s fact-checking policies actually have on online political discourse. With regard to Trump in particular, Twitter’s efforts to call out his political falsehoods have only a marginal impact — at best — on the national political conversation, for several reasons. First, even on tweets that Twitter flagged as false and provided fact-checking for, Trump still received a large number of reactions, indicating that his opinions were still widely shared and publicized. For instance, his tweet declaring that mail-in voting could not be “anything less than substantially fraudulent” has more than 35,000 retweets and 125,000 likes as of Sept. 27.
In tandem with that, fact-checking Trump’s blatant falsehoods do little to actually regulate the political climate. People who do not support Trump already know that many of his claims are false, while his supporters are exceedingly unlikely to change their views based on fact-checking, especially provided by a site that Trump claims is biased against Republicans. Ultimately, while Twitter’s fact-checking policies help improve political discourse and call out falsehoods in theory, their impact on the president’s social media presence is effectively null.
While Twitter’s approach to Trump has been widely discussed, less-publicized causes and groups can still easily manipulate Twitter users, providing a reminder that the responsibility for verifying information found on the site still resides with the users themselves. The Black Lives Matter Foundation in Santa Clarita, Calif., supports bridging the silos between the local community and the police. However, the foundation’s misnomer led people to believe it was associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was founded to end violence against Black communities.
As a result, many looking to financially aid the social justice movement donated, or almost donated, to the Santa Clarita foundation: According to Buzzfeed News, Apple, Google and Microsoft almost donated a combined $4 million to the foundation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder before realizing that they almost donated to a foundation that encourages communities’ relationship with the police — which directly contradicts the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to defund the police. This case highlights how while misinformation is a problem, an unwillingness to fact check or research claims contributes to how people uncritically take information at face value. Major corporations, like Apple, have the resources to look into the foundations they associate with. However, their failure to do research before nearly making a multimillion-dollar donation suggests that failing to investigate or verify things sourced from Twitter is common not only among social media users but the populace at large.
Major social media platforms indicate their focus is primarily on aiding the spread of factual information, as demonstrated through mission statements and corporate social responsibility initiatives. For example, in 2018, Twitter supported Reporters Without Borders and celebrated World Press Freedom Day with multilingual hashtags and global events. Events like this demonstrate Twitter’s focus on press freedom, an admirable initiative which occasionally is misconstrued as open dialogue without a focus on fact-checking and ensuring truthfulness. To emphasize that, on June 2, Twitter stated that its “focus is on providing context, not fact-checking,” a reminder that the website is first and foremost a conversational outlet.
While Facebook has a third-party fact-checking program founded in 2016, Twitter’s approach to handling misinformation shows that it is largely up to social media users to validate claims they see online. While this can come in many forms, such as cross-checking facts with those of other sources and seeking the opinion of reputable publications and journalists, recognizing dangerous misinformation ploys on social media is essential in ethical and productive news and information consumption.
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