For the first time, Twitter applied its label for misleading tweets from world leaders to a tweet President Donald Trump sent on Tuesday.
Trump addressed the fact-check in a tweet Tuesday night, writing, “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”
Trump has used the platform to spread rumors, insult opponents, and push conspiracy theories, regularly coming close to the edge of what the platform will allow to stand but not crossing it — until now.
“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one,” Trump tweeted. “That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!”
Trump posted the same message to his Facebook page and it remains up as of Tuesday night, without a fact-check. A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote.”
Below the tweets, Twitter added a label saying, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” Upon clicking the link, people see the following message: “Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud.”
A spokesperson for Twitter told BuzzFeed News that Trump’s tweets contained potentially misleading information about voting processes and were labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.
“This decision is in line with the approach we shared earlier this month,” the spokesperson said.
A Twitter source told BuzzFeed News that an internal team made the decision, rather than relying on a third party, but that there is not a standalone dedicated fact-checking team within the company.
Trump’s claim that California’s vote-by-mail balloting would lead to voter fraud are not supported by experts in the American electoral system. “There is no evidence to support Trump’s wild allegations,” Jason McDaniel, professor of political science at San Francisco State University, told BuzzFeed News. “Voter fraud almost never occurs, and all the evidence we have suggests that elections with vote by mail are very secure. However, research shows that Republicans worry more about voter fraud than Democrats. Trump’s reckless allegations are designed to inflame those fears, and to further erode American’s trust in the electoral process. I am glad to see news media and organizations like Twitter push back against Trump’s falsehoods.”
Some experts applauded Twitter’s move, but hoped that the company would go further in the future. “I think it is really good that Twitter did this,” David Rand, a professor at MIT, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s essential for them to fact-check as many tweets as possible, and in particular to fact-check tweets from very influential accounts like Trump. Otherwise, a lack of warning on Trump tweets may be seen by many as an indication that the tweets have actually been verified.”
Nevertheless, the Trump campaign, in a statement Tuesday night, attacked Twitter’s decision. 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.”
Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, told BuzzFeed News that any way to get good and accurate information to voters is important. “Saturating the communications with the truth is a conventional and expected and tested way to combating misinformation,” she said.
Pérez said that every credible study that has examined voter fraud has concluded that it is extraordinarily rare. She said every state in the country has some kind of way to safely and securely vote by mail.
“I think [claiming voter fraud] is part of a playbook and it’s the way [Trump’s campaign] responds to increasing access to the electorate,” she said. “I think most Americans aren’t buying it.”
While Trump’s tweet on Tuesday is the first time one of the president’s posts has been fact-checked by the platform, Twitter put a “manipulated media” label on an edited video of former vice president Joe Biden that Trump retweeted in March.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Twitter has become more aggressive about combating misinformation. At the end of March, Twitter deleted two tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro because they contained false or misleading information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The platform also cited its COVID-19 content policy to delete a tweet from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, which quoted Talking Points USA’s Charlie Kirk and claimed the use of hydroxychloroquine was “100% effective” in treating COVID-19. It also temporarily locked the account of the right-wing news site Federalist and deleted one of its tweets that promoted “controlled voluntary infection” of COVID-19.
But compared to those moves, fact-checking one of the president’s tweets will have huge ramifications on the platform.
“It’s already evident that Twitter is not big fan of working with fact-checkers, but I’m pretty sure this will be a milestone in their future reassessment of their policy (or the lack of),” Director of the International Fact-Checking Network Baybars Örsek tweeted on Tuesday.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Tuesday night reiterated Trump’s misleading claims about mail-in voter fraud in a Twitter thread. None of the tweets in McEnany’s thread carry the fact-checking warning.
Pressure has been mounting in the last few weeks to fact-check or label tweets from the president that contain misinformation. As of Tuesday night, Trump had tweeted six times, most recently over Memorial Day weekend, about a decades-old conspiracy theory claiming that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was involved in the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a staffer who worked in his Florida office when he served in Congress.
Last week, Klausutis’s widower, T.J. Klausutis, wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asking him to remove the president’s tweets, but Twitter refused.
“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “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.”
Trump was asked by reporters on Tuesday if he had seen the letter from Klausutis about Trump using her death to attack Scarborough.
‘Yeah, I have,” Trump said, before reiterating the conspiracy theory. “As you know, there’s no statute of limitations.”
With additional reporting by Ryan Mac.