Twitter labels Trump’s tweets with a fact check for the first time

The tweets, said Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough, “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots.”

Twitter’s action was quick to promote backlash from Trump and his supporters. “Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election,” he tweeted. “They are saying my statement on Mail-In Ballots, which will lead to massive corruption and fraud, is incorrect, based on fact-checking by Fake News CNN and the Amazon Washington Post…”

For its 14-year existence, Twitter has allowed misinformation by world leaders and everyday citizens to spread virtually unchecked. Its leaders have long said users would engage in debate on the platform and correct false information on their own.

But Trump has made dozens of false claims on social media, particularly on his preferred medium of Twitter, and has also attacked people in ways that critics have argued could violate company policies on harassment and bullying.

For example, Twitter faced a barrage of criticism earlier Tuesday over another set of Trump tweets. The widower of a former staffer to then-Rep. Joe Scarborough asked Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to delete tweets by Trump furthering a baseless conspiracy theory about the staffer’s wife’s death. Those tweets are still up, a reflection of an approach to policing content that can appear inconsistent or incremental even as the companies have stepped up their enforcement.

The company is debating whether to take action on the Scarborough tweets, said a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations.

Its much larger rival Facebook, by contrast, launched a fact-checking program several years ago. Facebook funds an army of third-party fact checkers to investigate content, which then gets labeled on the site and demoted in its reach. However, Trump posted the same content about mail-in ballots on Facebook. Facebook did not respond to a question about whether it would label or remove it.

Twitter, which has roughly 330 million users compared to Facebook’s 2.6 billion, has not had the resources or the institutional will to engage fact-checkers.

But Twitter has changed its approach during the pandemic. In March, the company revised its terms of service to say it would remove posts by anyone, even world leaders, if such posts went “against guidance from authoritative sources of global and public health information.” That includes comments claiming social distancing is ineffective or essential oils can be used to cure the disease, for example.

Soon after, for the first time, Twitter applied the policy to world leaders, removing tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, arguing that the tweets about breaking social distancing orders and touting false cures had such potential for harm that labeling them would be insufficient.

In March, Twitter labeled a manipulated video of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden that was retweeted by Trump. That same month, Facebook took down a misleading ad about the U.S. census, one of two times that Facebook has taken action against the Trump campaign.

Then earlier this month, Twitter rolled out a new policy saying that it would label or provide warning messages about coronavirus-related misinformation, even when that information is not a direct contradiction of health authorities and does not violate the company’s policies. The company said at the time that it may expand the labels to other issue areas, such as other types of health-related hoaxes or other situations where there is a risk of harm. Tuesday’s tweets on elections represent an expansion into a new area of election-related misinformation.

The label directs users to articles by CNN, the Washington Post, and the Hill, along with selections from the articles and a page summarizing the findings of fact-checkers.

As a matter of policy, Twitter and other tech companies hold world leaders to different standards than everyday users. The content of world leaders is kept up by Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube, even when it violates company policies, a practice known as the “newsworthiness exemption.”

That policy has long been subject to criticism because comments by world leaders can have massive impact on people’s behavior and the potential to cause harm. President’s Trump’s recent promotion of the drug hydroxychloroquine as an experimental treatment for the coronavirus, for example, caused prescriptions and drug sales to soar.

If Trump had instructed people to take the drug outright, the statement would probably have been taken down by both Facebook and Twitter, according to people who work there who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Instead the president walked a fine line, promoting the benefits of the drug and saying he was taking it himself.

The World Health Organization has halted studies of the drug out of concern that it causes more harm than good.

Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.

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