For the first time, Twitter has added a fact-check label to a tweet by President Donald Trump that claimed mail-in election ballots would be fraudulent. But it stopped short of removing those tweets or others he posted earlier this month about a false murder accusation that generated huge criticism against the company for failing to remove them.
Those tweets, which, for average users, risk being deleted for violating Twitter’s policies against harassment raise the question: Will the company ever remove one of the President’s inflammatory tweets?
“Trump is pushing the limits of what Twitter is going to allow,” said Steven Livingston, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University. “At some point, it’s going to have to make the decision that this exceeds what is allowed.”
The controversy is over an unfounded claim by Trump that MSNBC news host and former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough may have murdered his staffer Lori Klausutis in 2001. Klausutis, who was 28, died after fainting and hitting her head on a desk in Scarborough’s Florida office while he was in Washington, D.C. Her widower, T.J. Klausutis, last week wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking him to remove the tweets, the most recent of which was posted on May 12.
But Twitter has no plans to remove the tweet. A spokesman explained the decision by saying: “We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family. 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 debate comes as Twitter continues to struggle with how to police misinformation and offensive comments, especially when they come from public figures. Twitter won’t remove those tweets, claiming that the public deserves to see what their leaders say, regardless of the content.
But it has removed a few tweets that promoted misinformation about the coronavirus. In March, Twitter removed tweets from the Presidents of Brazil and Venezuela as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, all of whom had endorsed hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for the coronavirus.
Last year, Twitter debuted a new label for public figures that warns viewers about a problematic tweet before allowing them to see its contents. But Twitter has yet to use the label.
On Tuesday, however, Twitter added a fact-check link to the bottom of a tweet by Trump. The link, which says “get the facts about mail-in ballots,” is an effort to debunk his claim that “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”
The problem is complicated, said some political experts. Twitter wants to protect free speech but must also enforce its policies against hate speech, harassment, and abuse. Meanwhile, the service doesn’t want to be an arbiter of truth or censor comments that could serve the public interest.
“It’s a fool’s errand,” said Nadine Strossen, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s doomed to fail, and it’s never going to satisfy everybody.”
Strossen added that as infuriating as Trump’s tweets may be, it’s important that society refrain from totally relying on Twitter to choose which comments should be censored. Free speech “can do a tremendous amount of harm…but even more harmful is the adverse impact of the censorship from a private entity,” Strossen said.
Joshua Tucker, codirector of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University, said Twitter also must walk a fine line in the actions it takes against politicians. For example, banning a politician for repeatedly violating its rules would only infuriate one side of the political spectrum or another. “It’s really hard to imagine how kicking a major political leader off Twitter would be interpreted as anything other than a partisan action,” he said. “There’s a societal interest in whether you want a private company regulating speech, and then there’s the private interest of the companies themselves.”
Livingston said fear of criticism by conservatives is probably why Twitter has declined, until now, to police Trump’s tweets. The company also has a dilemma on its hands, in that partisan groups can use its service to mobilize, further fueling the cesspool of anger, hate, and misinformation. “The very condition they helped create, they can’t solve,” he said.
Livingston expects Twitter to eventually “step up and meet its obligations. Twitter somewhere is going to recognize this isn’t right,” he said. “When any politician starts accusing someone, without evidence, of murder, that’s just taking it too far.”