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Twitter Places Fact-Checking Warning On Trump Tweet For 1st Time

May 26, 2020
Originally published on May 28, 2020 4:03 pm

Updated at 9:59 p.m. ET

Twitter has placed a fact-checking warning on a pair of tweets issued by President Trump in which he claims without evidence that mail-in ballots are fraudulent.

Twitter's move on Tuesday marks the first time the technology company has sanctioned Trump as criticism mounts about how the president has amplified misinformation to more than 80 million followers on the social media platform.

Trump responded by accusing Twitter of stifling free speech.

Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy told NPR that while the tweet about mail-in voting does not violate Twitter's rules since "it does not directly try to dissuade people from voting," it does contain "misleading information about the voting process, specifically mail-in ballots."

The action is the latest confrontation between Washington and Silicon Valley with a presidential election just months away.

Brad Parscale, Trump's 2020 campaign manager, suggested Twitter was attempting to impinge on the president's free speech rights and accused the company of being anti-Trump.

"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," Parscale said. "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. There are many reasons the Trump campaign pulled all our advertising from Twitter months ago, and their clear political bias is one of them."

Earlier this month, Twitter announced a move to combat the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus. Twitter said it will place labels on misleading or disputed information about the virus "regardless of who the speaker is."

Critics of Twitter have complained that it has placed Trump above its attempts to enforce rules aimed at making the platform more civil.

Tuesday's action allowing users to "get the facts" about what Trump was tweeting comes just as the social media platform faces criticism for its inaction on a tweet Trump sent advancing a groundless conspiracy theory about the death of an ex-staffer of Joe Scarborough, a former congressman who is now a television host on MSNBC and frequent Trump target.

On Twitter, Trump pushed the baseless theory that Scarborough killed Lori Kaye Klausutis, 28, who was found dead in Scarborough's congressional office in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., in July 2001.

"There has been a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died," widower Timothy J. Klausutis wrote last week to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. "... Because of this, I have struggled to move forward with my life."

He went on to ask Dorsey: "My request is simple: Please delete these tweets,"

Despite the plea, Twitter has not removed the tweet advancing the false conspiracy theory about the death of Klausutis' wife, who had an undiagnosed heart condition, passed out and hit her head on her desk when she fell. Dorsey never directly replied to the widower's letter.

But in a statement, Kennedy, the Twitter spokesman, said the tweets about Scarborough do not violate company policies.

"We've drawn lines for certain issue areas, including civic integrity and voting," Kennedy said. "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."

The president's comments about Scarborough have also been posted to Facebook, which has 2.6 billion users.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the company does not remove "political speech" just because it may be seen as offensive, "as this content understandably is to the family of Lori Klausutis and others."

The Facebook spokesperson added that: "Speech from candidates and heads of state is among the most scrutinized content on our platform, which helps ensure people are held accountable for their words."

Twitter, which has some 330 million users, has had a longstanding practice of exempting world leaders from its content rules under a "newsworthiness" exemption. But the pandemic has caused it to revamp its policies.

Twitter officials now say posts by any user, even world leaders, are subject to carrying warning labels, or being removed altogether, if the content runs afoul of the guidance of leading public health agencies.

And it has made good on that promise by deleting tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Bolsonaro praised the use of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and called for an end to social distancing. And Maduro promoted a "natural brew" to remedy those infected with COVID-19.

Twitter said such posts violated its policies, but the company has never deleted a tweet by Trump.

NPR's Shannon Bond contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ahead of the 2020 election, Big Tech companies are trying to stop the spread of misinformation on their platforms. But what do you do when that misinformation is coming from the president? For weeks, President Trump has claimed without evidence that mail-in voting is full of fraud and that Democrats are trying to rig the election. For the first time, Twitter took action yesterday against the president, adding links to fact checks on two of the president's tweets.

This morning, President Trump - well, he took to Twitter again to say, quote, "Republicans feel that social media platforms totally silence conservative voices. We will strongly regulate or close them down before we can ever allow this to happen," end quote.

NPR's Bobby Allyn has been covering this. We spoke earlier, and I asked Bobby to explain the tweets that prompted Twitter to act.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: So Trump promoted a conspiracy theory that voting by mail is just full of fraud. It's not the first time he's made that claim. But yesterday, it gained a lot of attention because Twitter took action. And again, this is a baseless claim. There's no evidence to back it up. And Twitter, for the first time, put a label on the tweet saying as much. It's a blue exclamation point, and it directs readers to find out the facts about mail-in voting. And it offers a link. You can click the link, and you're sent to reliable news coverage about the issue.

GREENE: Well, I guess the big question I have is, why now? I mean, this is not the first time the president has tweeted something that fact-checkers just jumped on and said was just not true.

ALLYN: Yeah. So the action really illustrates a major shift at Twitter. You know, earlier this month, Twitter made a big announcement that it was going to start basically policing misinformation and disputed claims and unverified tweets about the coronavirus and that it would label some of those tweets regardless of the speaker. This is a major shift because for a long time, Twitter said if you're a world leader, like President Trump, Twitter would take a hands-off approach to tweets. And that garnered, you know, widespread criticism.

So this is basically Twitter making good on its promise that no matter who you are, if you say something on Twitter that is unproven, Twitter will take action by slapping a warning label on it. And that's exactly what happened with Trump yesterday.

I talked to David Kay. He is a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and he specializes in freedom of expression issues.

DAVID KAY: If they don't respond to either disinformation or extremism or whatever it might be, they know that they're going to face some very serious regulation that's going to influence their ability to - really to maintain their platforms the way that they want.

GREENE: But I mean, Bobby, how does a company like Twitter pick and choose? I mean, we should say this also comes at a time when the president has been sending out these false tweets about the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that's gotten a lot of attention.

ALLYN: Yeah. It's hard to talk about this move by Twitter without talking about that. So the backstory here is Scarborough, who is a former GOP congressman, has often sparred with the president. In a recent tweet, Trump falsely linked Scarborough to the 2001 death of a woman who once worked for Scarborough. The president's tweet was roundly criticized. The conservative-leaning editorial board of The Wall Street Journal was shocked by it. They wrote it shows Trump debasing his office. The widower of the woman who died pleaded with Twitter to remove the post, but Twitter has refused.

So the growing pressure for Twitter to do something about the Scarborough tweet came on the heels of Twitter placing a disclaimer on the mail-in voting tweet, perhaps as a way to relieve some of that pressure for deciding not to act on the Scarborough post.

GREENE: So Bobby, tell me about how the president is responding to all of this.

ALLYN: The president, fittingly enough, took to Twitter and, you know, basically said that Twitter was interfering in the 2020 presidential election, which is quite the claim, and also said that Twitter was stifling his free speech. A campaign manager for Trump said the move shows Silicon Valley is trying to get in the way of Trump getting his message out to voters.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

ALLYN: Sure. Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.