Twitter-Trump clash intensifies political misinformation battle

Rob Lever
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Twitter for the first time slapped a warning label on tweets from President Donald Trump, prompting an angry response from the US leader who vowed to regulate or shut down social media platforms

President Donald Trump's threat to shut down social media companies after Twitter labeled two of his tweets misleading sets up a fresh challenge for platforms as they struggle to deal with political misinformation during a toxic election campaign.

Twitter on Tuesday targeted tweets in which the president said that mail-in voting would lead to fraud and a "rigged election" in November, the first time the platform has placed a warning label on Trump's comments.

The president's angry response and threat to "strongly regulate" or "close down" social media firms highlights the conundrum for Twitter and other platforms, said Steven Livingston, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University.

Livingston said he expects Twitter to narrowly enforce its misinformation policies, dealing only with specific issues such as the electoral process and the coronavirus pandemic.

The attacks by Trump and his supporters put "so much pressure (on Twitter) and they are blanching at the thought of taking the next step" on curbing political misinformation, Livingston said.

"They are caught on the horns of a dilemma and don't know which way to go."

Even while Twitter is pledging to foster a "healthy conversation" by filtering out hoaxes and toxic content, Livingston said the economic model for social platforms suggests the opposite.

"Platforms know very well they are accentuating extremism," he said. "Extremism holds attention and allows them to sell more advertising, and that's the whole point of the game."

When asked about Twitter's fact-checking during an interview on Fox News, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said his social network has a different policy.

"I just believe strongly that Facebook should not be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online," Zuckerberg said in a snippet of the interview posted online by Fox.

"I think, in general, private companies, especially these platform companies, shouldn't be in the position of doing that."

University of Texas social media researcher and professor Samuel Woolley nonetheless welcomed what he called "a very bold move by Twitter" in the face of political pressure.

"Twitter will face a lot of backlash and whether they can bear up on this remains to be seen," Woolley said.

Karen Kornbluh, head of the digital innovation and democracy initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Twitter's action on content after it goes viral "may be a case of closing the barn door after the horse is out -- but at least it communicates standards for acceptable activity on a platform's site and that no one is completely exempt."

- Bias claims, redux -

The latest clash between Trump and Twitter comes with the president and his supporters complaining of what he calls bias by internet firms against conservatives -- despite his own vast social media following -- and threatening to use antitrust enforcement or other regulatory efforts against the companies.

Daniel Kreiss, a professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina's Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, said Twitter "made the right call" in enforcing its policy on election misinformation without getting into the broader area of political speech or other topics, such as the president's murder conspiracy comments this week against a TV journalist.

"Twitter is drawing a line in the sand on protecting electoral integrity, saying this outweighs anyone's right to use the platform any way they want," Kreiss said.

"I think they're well justified. They have laid out clear values and a transparent policy."

Kreiss said the measured approach could allow Twitter to navigate a toxic election campaign without getting bogged down in political debate, but noted that "they will be criticized whichever way they go."

Michelle Amazeen, a Boston University professor of political communication, called Twitter's move "a much needed step forward" but questioned how much impact this would have on misinformation on the platform.

"Are Twitter users now going to believe that if there is no label, Trump's tweet is accurate? Research suggests they will," she said.

Amazeen said Twitter's actions still fall short of establishing the same kinds of standards in force in most news outlets.

"Twitter is not a reliable source for legitimate news," she said. "Studies indicate that people who rely on social media for their news are more likely to be misinformed than people who go to mainstream news sources."

As to Trump's threats, legal experts say Trump has distorted the US constitution's free speech guarantees which protect against government-directed controls.

"Thank goodness the First Amendment prevents him, or me or any other elected official from closing down speech platforms," Democratic lawmaker Ted Lieu tweeted.