The Current

Faced with coronavirus misinformation, Twitter was 'forced' to start fact-checking Trump, says media scholar

COVID-19 has forced Twitter's hands to respond to misinformation spread by U.S. President Donald Trump who has long tweeted with impunity, says a media scholar.

Zuckerberg's 'close personal relationship with Donald Trump' behind slow response: Siva Vaidhyanathan

U.S. President Donald Trump criticized Twitter last week for flagging his tweet responding to protests over the death of George Floyd as 'glorifying violence.' (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Read story transcript

COVID-19 has forced Twitter's hands to respond to misinformation spread by U.S. President Donald Trump who has long tweeted with impunity, says a media scholar.

"He seems to be failing on every front, and so his tweets get angrier, more defensive — and, in fact, more offensive," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia media studies professor.

On Friday, Trump tweeted that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," quoting a former Miami police chief who coined the phrase in a 1967 interview about cracking down on crime. His message came in response to days of protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned to the ground by a white officer kneeling on his neck during his arrest. 

The Trump tweet that prompted a warning from Twitter. Users of the platform can still read it, but must first click through an advisory. (Twitter)

Soon after it was published, Twitter flagged the tweet for violating the platform's rules on glorifying violence, but made it accessible to those who clicked through to read it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted calls to fact-check or flag the president's social media posts, saying that social media networks should not be "arbiters of truth." The Current requested comment from both Twitter and Facebook. The companies declined to make anyone available for an interview.

Here is part of Vaidhyanathan's conversation with host Matt Galloway.

The relationship that Donald Trump has with Twitter is an interesting one because he has used it as a bully pulpit, but it's not the safe space perhaps now that it was for him even six months ago. When did this relationship start to break apart?

I think very recently. 

So Twitter has had very clear rules that limit what you and I can express on Twitter, and Facebook has the same set of rules — rules that basically say if you promote or celebrate or champion violence, your tweet will be removed and you risk having your account cancelled if you repeatedly engage in that behaviour.

We've seen hundreds of right-wing and left-wing activists suffer from those sorts of penalties to greater and lesser degrees. 

The president of the United States has always been above that level of scrutiny from Twitter. Twitter's officials have been very clear about the fact that they consider all of his tweets to be newsworthy and therefore they have refused to treat Trump — or Narendra Modi in India or Rodrigo Duterte in Philippines or Boris Johnson in the U.K. — as a regular Twitter user.

In fact, [Twitter has] decided that heads of state will have their own set of rules, which basically have been until now, no rules.

Protests continue to erupt across the U.S. over the death of another unarmed black man in police hands. The National Guard has been deployed in a dozen states. And U.S. President Donald Trump has condemned the protesters, calling them ‘thugs’ on Twitter. Wendy Mesley examines the impact of the president’s response. 11:53

So why did that change? Twitter put a fact-check label next to his tweet about mail-in voting. But then you're talking about glorifying violence ... and then Twitter said that this tweet glorified violence and put a shield kind of around it. What changed? 

I think what changed was the pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Facebook and Twitter and Google, which of course runs YouTube, to take more seriously the direct threat of misinformation. 

The fact that you can have misinformation about a public health emergency and very quickly contribute to the demise of hundreds of thousands of people raises the stakes. Disinformation and fighting disinformation, once we have a global pandemic, is no longer merely a political matter — something that might affect an election and have some downstream effects, but, in fact, can have the direct effects on people's lives.

So in the past few months, all of these services have re-examined their approach to how they're going to scour for misinformation and disinformation — and taken much more seriously the misinformation, disinformation and hatred coming from Donald Trump, because Donald Trump has explicitly advocated for dangerous, misleading things like the inappropriate use of certain pharmaceuticals to treat coronavirus symptoms. 

Also given that we have this massively important election in the fall, that scrutiny has extended to information and misinformation about voting. Knowing that in 2016 and in 2018, the social media platforms were flooded by misinformation about how and when one could vote, and lots of rumours about voting improprieties that turned out not to be true, but all of which affected the election. So the stakes are much higher.

Well, the tweets get fact-checked, but they're still up on Facebook. And Facebook has taken this very different approach to these posts that might be inaccurate or otherwise would violate terms of service. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was speaking on CNBC last week, saying that he doesn't think social media companies should be the "arbiters of truth." So, Siva, why is Twitter going one way, but Facebook going a different way?

I think it's because Mark Zuckerberg has a close personal relationship with Donald Trump at this point. He is either terrified of Donald Trump or terrified of the next administration putting some sort of regulatory stricture on Facebook in a way that would be uncomfortable.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is shown speaking at the Paley Center in New York. Zuckerberg has said he doesn't want Facebook to be an 'arbiter' of political speech, but critics say it leaves the site vulnerable to propaganda and false claims from candidates and political campaigns. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

What would he be concerned about when it comes to regulation?

Well, you know, that's what's interesting. There doesn't seem to be any prospect of the sort of regulation that would actually threaten Facebook's business. I think he just doesn't want the conversation to even come up in a serious way. So he's trying his best to keep politicians in general happy. 

And that's not just Trump, but it is Modi and Duterte and Bolsonaro. You know, those are all very important patrons of Facebook and people who rely on Facebook to spread their illiberal political views. 

So it's one of those situations where I think the very fact that Trump is working Mark Zuckerberg constantly — on the phone with him, having him to the White House for dinner. These things have an effect where Zuckerberg basically has decided that he can pretend to be hands off. 

Meanwhile, his service is promoting — actively promoting — Trump's messages, no matter how destructive or dangerous those messages are. 

Given what Facebook was involved in in the last U.S. election — Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the idea of, you know, Russian interference as a  pretty, pretty crazy idea. Turned out that it wasn't a pretty crazy idea; that it was happening. 

What do you think is likely to happen on social media platforms going into the fall election?

Oh, nothing good.… Nothing has changed in any measurable way. Twitter has decided to take Donald Trump's specific tweets to task in certain circumstances. That's not going to have a macro effect on the spread of disinformation and confusion, which is really the goal here on Twitter and then on Facebook. 

For every Twitter user in the world, there are eight Facebook users. Facebook has 2.5 billion people. Facebook has 230 million American regular users, as opposed to 30 million American regulars for Twitter. Facebook is where the game is. 


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. In fact, it declined to make a representative available for an interview. 
    Jun 02, 2020 12:26 PM ET

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