Twitter, Facebook fail to correct Trump’s misinformation about the number of US votes

When US President Donald Trump and his allies flooded social media on Wednesday with false claims to victory and unsupported allegations of election fraud, social media companies warned users that the presidential election had not yet been decided.

The posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other websites offer a real-time test of Silicon Valley’s much touted rules for dealing with election misinformation and early victory claims.

However, it is not clear whether the disclaimers and fact-checking, which often occur long after tens of thousands of contributions shared, limit the spread of unsubstantiated claims. And in the case of Facebook, employees have rewritten the rules for state victories on the fly.

Critics say that in environments explicitly designed to encourage instant sharing and viral posts, boring disclaimers don’t prevent it.

“We’re on the sidelines here,” said Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of advocacy group Free Press. She said Facebook needed to remove “disinformation about our democracy” instead of just labeling it.

“We are testing our experiment with democracy, and Facebook has not yet made it,” said Gonzalez.

The false and unsubstantiated claims have evolved over the course of the day. Initially, Trump said he won (he didn’t win). Then he said that unexpected mail-in voices appeared out of nowhere (in fact, they were long expected). More recently, Trump’s campaign claimed it won Pennsylvania (where votes are still counted.)

The allegations stem from Trump’s lead in battlefield states as more ballots are counted in Michigan and Wisconsin. This process has taken longer than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the extraordinarily high voter turnout. Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden is set to win Wisconsin and Michigan.

The extended count comes as no surprise, and neither is the late strike against Trump’s opponent Joe Biden, which was widely predicted in the run-up to the vote, including by Reuters. That didn’t stop Trump and his supporters from making repeated attempts to flood the internet with unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

Twitter labeled three of Trump’s most recent tweets, including one making a false claim about “surprise ballot boxes”, as potentially “misleading about an election or other citizen trial.” It also featured statements from Trump’s son Eric and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claiming the Pennsylvania victory with the disclaimer that “official sources may not have called the race when this was tweeted”.

Facebook has also flagged several posts from the president as votes were still being counted.

Even if the disclaimers curb the spread of misinformation on their platforms, they haven’t prevented other media outlets from reinforcing Trump’s comments or claims from jumping from one platform to another.

In Fox News, Trump’s tweets were read verbatim on Wednesday, sometimes with no qualifications as to their accuracy. And on the video-sharing website TikTok, a group called Republican Hype House shared a video falsely claiming that Michigan found 138,000 ballots in a lake.

TikTok said the video was later removed for violating its misleading information policy. Fox did not respond to an email asking for comment.

Social media companies were researched on how they quickly spread false information and abuse their platforms for election reasons. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s vote, both vowed to act on posts from candidates trying to declare the early victory.

Attempts to monitor these statements began early Wednesday when Twitter hid a Trump tweet claiming “we’re big but they’re trying to steal the election” behind a label that said it was possibly misleading. The company also restricted users’ ability to share the post.

Facebook added a label to the same post, which contained about 25,000 shares, stating that “final results may differ from the initial number of votes as the polling continues for days or weeks”.

Facebook said that following Trump’s premature victory claims, Trump started launching top-of-feed notifications on Facebook and its photo-sharing website Instagram to let users know that the votes were still being counted and not a winner was projected. It was said that with this information, automatic lettering would also be applied to the positions of both candidates.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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