Twitter Adds Fact Check to Trump’s Conspiracy Theories on Voter Fraud

Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images
Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images

Twitter, amid a controversy over its inaction on Donald Trump’s baseless tweets asserting that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough is a murderer, has for the first time begun attaching fact-checking links to some of the president’s posts.

It’s… certainly something? Two of Trump’s Tuesday tweets railing about imaginary Democratic voter fraud now have a link titled “get the facts about mail-in ballots,” that leads to a Twitter moment containing tweets from media organisations, journalists, and the ACLU debunking Trump’s claim.

So far, that appears to be it. None of Trump’s other tweets seem to have been modified, including numerous posts suggesting that Scarborough killed Lori Klausutis, a staffer who died in Scarborough’s former congressional offices in 2001. (A medical examiner determined Klausutis’s cause of death to be an undiagnosed heart condition.) Widower Timothy Klausutis wrote a wrenching letter in the New York Times begging Twitter to stop the “bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage.”

That hasn’t happened. But the president predictably launched into a rant, claiming that Twitter’s fact check on the voter fraud tweets constituted deliberate election interference. (It does not, but whatever.)

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson directed Gizmodo to a previous announcement in which Head of Site Integrity Yoel Roth and Global Public Policy Strategy & Development Director Nick Pickles wrote that the platform would be taking a new approach to misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic.

That post rolled out metrics in which Twitter moderators determine whether a claim is misleading, disputed, or unverified, then pair it with a “propensity for harm” rating to determine whether the tweet would be labelled, removed, ignored, or result in a warning to the user.

Screenshot: Twitter

Twitter identified two categories in which tweets might receive a label: Those with “misleading information” or a “disputed claim” with a moderate propensity for harm. That post also outlines a gaping carve-out which surely benefits the president, whose default rhetorical tactics include anecdotes too vague to be verified or floating supposed rumours about his opponents. Those claims which are merely “unverified” will result in no action, regardless of their “propensity for harm.”

Twitter previously said that it might expand that rubric to cover other issues. On Monday, the spokesperson pointed at the platform’s rules on election integrity, which bans “posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process.”

In a followup statement to the Washington Post, Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough said that Trump’s tweets “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labelled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”

So far, the fact-checking module appears to be the only measure Twitter has taken to check Trump’s behaviour on the site (other than deleting quoted tweets or removing campaign ads that violated copyright). Twitter has made it clear it will never actually ban the president or delete his tweets. For the past few years, the site has pulled a parade of questionable excuses out of its hat to justify giving the president carte blanche to violate its rules: that they’re newsworthy, that they hold “public interest value,” that they are “vague and unclear,” or simply that they don’t violate bans on hateful conduct for reasons Twitter doesn’t have to explain.

The fact-checking module is a rather noteworthy departure from that policy —

albeit mostly in that it directly infuriates Trump, rather than the dismal hopes such modules will prove to be effective at changing anyone’s mind. It also does nothing to slow down the rate at which Trump churns out propaganda on the platform, as there is virtually no chance he can be slowed down by the prospect of embarrassment. There is no clear indication that Twitter will change its policies on the president’s other garbage tweets.

“We’ve drawn lines for certain issue areas, including civic integrity and voting,” Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy told NPR. “However, as we said on the Scarborough tweets, 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.”