Twitter has fact-checked President Donald Trump for the first time. Trump had claimed on Twitter that mail-in ballots would be “substantially fraudulent.” Now his two tweets on the topic have been labeled with a link inviting readers to “get the facts about mail-in ballots” and directing them to resources stating that Trump’s claims are unsubstantiated. Here are four key takeaways.
On the facts, Twitter is right and Trump is wrong
Trump claims that switching to mail-in ballots is going to lead to substantial levels of election fraud. As Richard Hasen has noted in the Monkey Cage, a blog written by political scientists and hosted by the Washington Post, there is a very strong consensus that this claim is flat-out wrong and that the available evidence shows that there is only a negligible level of mail-in ballot fraud.
Some have speculated that Trump is arguing against mail-in ballots because he believes they will benefit Democrats and hurt Republicans. Again, the political science evidence goes the other way. Writing for the Monkey Cage, Daniel Thompson and his colleagues find that mail-in ballots do not advantage either party, while Enrijeta Shino and her colleagues show that mail-in ballots for younger, minority and first-time voters are more likely to be invalidated.
This isn’t a straightforward free-speech issue
Trump has responded to Twitter’s action by claiming that “Twitter is completely STIFLING FREE SPEECH.” This claim misrepresents the actual situation. Social media platforms are not public utilities. Instead, they are run by private-sector organizations, usually for profit. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, platform companies have fairly wide discretion either to remove content (if they see fit) or to keep it up. This leads to two contested questions — how they ought to use their discretion, and whether they ought to have it in the first place.
The first of these is the topic of increasingly heated debate. As Tarleton Gillespie discusses in his book on social media moderation, platform companies have always restricted their users’ ability to post content, and these restrictions have always reflected value judgments. Increasingly, these value judgments have themselves been contested, by users and groups who want some kinds of speech to be restricted and other users who disagree. Whenever a social media company bans someone like the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, there are bitter criticisms that free speech is being undermined. Whenever a social media company declines to ban someone like Jones, there are bitter complaints that his false claims are going unchecked.
Social media companies would prefer not to be turned into arbiters of political truth — a responsibility that involves many risks and few opportunities for profit. However, they are increasingly being obliged to craft policies and institutions to deal with controversial content.
What they fear most is the possibility that their decisions will lead to a political counterreaction. Social media companies are not very popular. Many on the left see them as dangerous monopolies, while some on the right see them as self-appointed speech police. Joint efforts by the left and right to curb the power of social media platforms could seriously damage their business model and perhaps even completely undermine it.
Twitter’s new policy is a big change, but one that builds on past policy
This is why Twitter’s labeling of Trump’s tweets as misleading is significant. In the past, Twitter has been extremely reluctant to regulate Trump’s speech in any way. While Trump’s tweets have frequently been personally derogatory, have propagated conspiracy theories and have otherwise offended against Twitter’s terms of service (the contractual rules that bind Twitter’s users), Twitter has been reluctant to intervene.
However, in October 2019, Twitter did announce a new policy approach to tweets by “world leaders,” which was widely perceived as responding to the challenges posed by Trump’s tweets. In it, Twitter described tweets that would result in immediate enforcement action, including specific death threats, posting child pornography or sharing unauthorized intimate photos or videos, regardless of whether they were added by world leaders or ordinary users. “In other cases involving a world leader, we will err on the side of leaving the content up if there is a clear public interest in doing so,” Twitter added. However, Twitter also noted that “if a tweet from a world leader does violate the Twitter Rules but there is a clear public interest value to keeping the tweet on the service, we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content.”
Now, Twitter has done just this. Trump’s tweet has not been removed — but it has been placed behind a notice, identifying it as problematic.
Twitter surely expected a backlash
Twitter had to know its action would enrage Trump. The president had already claimed that the “Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google” and suggested that the administration was working to “remedy this illegal situation.” The administration is considering the creation of a commission to examine bias against conservatives in social media, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
Now, Trump has claimed that Twitter “is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and warned that “I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”
So why did Twitter go ahead? It may have decided that it is better to have this fight now, rather than risk being dragged into possible contestation over election results in November, when Trump (if he loses) might use his Twitter account to insist that the election was stolen through fraud. Such a situation would leave Twitter with no appealing options — either it would moderate Trump’s comments or face criticism that it was directly undermining American democracy.
It is unclear what Trump means by threatening to act as president to stop Twitter, but Twitter’s lawyers have surely thought through the likely legal and regulatory backlash. The specific steps that Twitter has taken — focusing on claims over election fraud and labeling them in accordance with a pre-announced policy — are plausibly intended to minimize the downside risks of Trump’s counteraction, even if they cannot eliminate them.
Henry Farrell is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and editor-in-chief of the Monkey Cage at the Washington Post. For other analysis and commentary from the Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.