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The Technology 202: President Trump's conspiracy theories are putting pressure on Twitter to change its policies

with Tonya Riley

President Trump keeps pushing the boundaries on Twitter. 

Trump once again yesterday promoted a baseless conspiracy theory on his favorite social media platform. He suggested that 75-year-old Martin Gugino, a Buffalo activist injured after police pushed him to the ground at a protest, was a member of antifa. Trump has repeatedly said without evidence that the loose collection of anti-facists are promoting violence and other crimes during the protests against racial injustice.

He also insinuated that Gugino, who hit his head and was bleeding in the footage of the incident, was somehow faking it and fell rather than being pushed. “Could be a set up?” he asked

That question mark at the end was key. As pressure mounted on the platform to once again police Trump's speech, Twitter ultimately determined this particular tweet doesn't violate its policies and took no action. In an email sent to me, the company noted Trump's tweet was speculative. Meanwhile, the Washington Post Fact Checker gave the missive a score of “Four Pinocchios” for blantant falsehood. 

Including question marks in his tweets about inflammatory subjects is part of a larger pattern that Trump uses to distance himself from the consequences of his most outrageous rockets.

Social media is filled with speculation, and framing the Buffalo hoax that way allowed Trump to skirt the already vague rules governing social media platforms, and avoid an already rare fact check from them. But asking a question rather than making an assertion still achieves what seems to be Trump's ultimate goal in this case, amplifying and spreading false information that his followers may believe: more than 40,000 people have retweeted it and 159,000 people have liked this tweet. 

The end result is the antifa “boogeyman” narrative gains more traction, and Gugino becomes a target for harassment online, Kate Starbird, an associate professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, noted in a tweet.

Trump recently used similar speculative language in another controversial set of tweets, which sparked broad debate about what the company should allow on its service. He suggested without evidence that Lori Klausutis might have been having an affair with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who she worked for, and the then-congressman might have even killed her. As he doubled down on the troubling conspiracy, Trump again turned to speculative language: “In 2016 when Joe & his wacky future ex-wife, Mika, would endlessly interview me, I would always be thinking about about whether or not Joe could have done such a horrible thing? Maybe or maybe not, but I find Joe to be a total Nut Job, and I knew him well, far better than most. So many unanswered & obvious questions, but I won’t bring them up now! Law enforcement eventually will?”

Starbird tells me she thinks Trump has long framed hoaxes this way. 

“Though this style of speech may reflect a broader set of norms of online speech that have, in part, developed as a way to evade content moderation, I am not convinced that Trump is strategically using this style to avoid platform censorship,” she said in an email. “It’s more likely that he has adopted this way of tweeting (and speaking) more generally as a way to be able to spread politically useful narratives without having to take responsibility when they are proven false.”

Tech companies are under pressure to re-evaluate their existing policies as the human costs of these false posts becomes clear. 

Twitter has frequently evolving rules that aim to keep violence, harassment and misinformation about sensitive issues like elections or the coronavirus off its service. Trump's tweets often creep up to or appear to even cross those lines, but the company has until very recently allowed them to remain unfettered on the platform because it views them as “newsworthy” and probably doesn't want to invite meddling from Washington.

Twitter has said its rethinking its policies after Klausutis's widow, Timothy J. Klausutis, called on the company to delete Trump's tweets smearing the memory of his late wife. 

“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 company said in a statement at the time. 

Timothy J. Klausutis highlighted the consequences of the companies' inaction in the letter. 

“I'm asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong him — the memory of my dead wife – and perverted it for perceived political gain,” he wrote. 

Critics widely blasted Twitter's decision not to label those posts in some way.  Multiple experts warn that Trump's targeting of individual, private citizens in tweets can lead to doxxing, in which a name or other personal details about someone is released online to incite digital attacks. Gugino could be next after Trump's tweet, said Melissa Ryan, the founder of CARD Strategies, a consulting firm that helps organizations handle disinformation. 

“This man is going to get harassment,” Ryan said. “He's potentially going to be doxxed because his name has been put out by the president.”

Ryan noted that one of Twitter's own employees fell victim to this tactic. Trump recently targeted a Twitter employee, Yoel Roth, in his tweets. The president tagged Roth in a post, calling him a “hater" after Twitter took the unprecedented step of labeling a pair of the president's tweets that made misleading claims about mail-in voting. Roth was one of the co-authors on Twitter's blog post explaining why the tweets were labeled, and media outlets surfaced several anti-Trump tweets that Roth had shared several years ago.  

“It's becoming a strategy that the Trump administration is more and more comfortable using, and Twitter has to figure out if they're comfortable with their platform being used that way," Ryan said. "It's on Twitter to make that decision that they're not going to let their platform be used that way." 

In cases of inflammatory or clearly false information disseminated by Trump, Twitter should consider consistently labeling the president's posts and preventing them from being amplified, Ryan said. The company did step in recently to shield the public from a tweet by Trump that violated its policies against glorifying violence after the president decried violent protesters against racial injustice, saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

Starbird suggested the tech companies expand their policies to cover more bad behavior. 

“The platforms could create policies specially around false conspiracy theories that lead to targeted harassment of a private individual — and connect those to some of their existing policies about harm and harassment,” she told me. 

Silicon Valley's Trump problem isn't going away. These debates will only get more heated closer to Election Day. 

The debate over Trump's posts has escalated in recent weeks, as Twitter has taken unprecedented steps to label and limit the spread of a handful of the president's tweets. Meanwhile, Facebook has taken a totally hands-off approach, allowing the president's remarks to remain unlabeled on its service. 

Experts are hopeful that Twitter will limit the president's tweets that name private individuals given recent controversies.

“It feels like Twitter and the Trump administration has been in a game of Chicken for a while," Ryan said.  "And Twitter clearly has made the decision that they're done playing this game. We will probably see a policy in the next month that pertains to this kind of thing, and it will be interesting to see what it is.” 

However, any actions by the companies to limit the president's social media activity risks further inflaming tensions with conservatives in Washington. 

Just yesterday, a group of Senate Republicans wrote a letter calling the Federal Communications Commission to evaluate the scope of Section 230, a legal provision that gives tech companies immunity from lawsuits for the photos and posts people share on their services. Trump signed an executive order directing the agency to review the provision as he railed against Twitter's labels on his tweets and accused the company of being biased. 

Our top tabs

Amazon, Facebook and Google are quietly funding political groups to use fingerprint-free tactics to battle antitrust probes.

Groups such as the Connected Commerce Council have used voices of local business owners to drum up support for Google, Tony Romm reports

In one instance, an organization known as 3C wrote an op-ed in an Arizona paper on the behalf of David Espinoza, a shoemaker. The piece did not indicate it was largely penned by 3C, and it railed against regulator's campaigns against Google. 

Espinoza had no idea the group was funded by the search giant until he was contacted by The Post. 3C also counts Facebook and Amazon as partners. 

“It is our responsibility, on behalf of our small-business members, to protect the existing model and promote the market, which is working exceedingly well," said Jake Ward, 3C president. “We are not, and will not work for, big tech.”

The tech industry's ramped-up efforts to use such groups to shore up its public image reflect the seriousness of growing antitrust scrutiny from state and federal regulators. State and federal regulators are currently investigating Google for anti-competitive behavior.

The tech industry has also funneled money into conservative groups that align with anti-regulation. One group, the National Taxpayers Union, recently conducted a poll focused on states actively investigating Google and other tech companies and determined voters would rather see their attorneys general focusing on other issues. The group declined to discuss its donors or why it commissioned the poll.

Similar research has been used to sway opinion in antitrust probes before, former regulators tell Tony. 

"It’s meant to “press upon public officials, and indirectly upon agencies, that [companies] enjoy broad public support for what they’re doing,” said William Kovacic, a professor at George Washington University’s law school who previously served on the Federal Trade Commission. “To tamper with them in a significant way is to anger the broader public.”

More advertisers are stepping away from Facebook in light of the platform's hands-off approach to Trump's inflammatory posts.

Facebook's unwillingness to crack down on Trump's posts could be costing it millions of dollars following already decreased ad spending during the pandemic, Tiffany Hsu and Cecilia Kang at the New York Times report.

“For the past couple of years, this problem has become bigger and bigger. These massive platforms have to care about free speech issues to some extent, but Facebook is on the extreme end of not caring," said  Nima Gardideh, the co-founder of a digital advertising agency that has encouraged clients to hold back millions in advertising dollars from Facebook.

Last week, Braze, a software company in New York, withdrew a Facebook ad campaign valued at around $60,000 dollars. The company cited Facebook's decisions to leave up Trump's statements in its decision.

“Facebook is the biggest publishing platform arguably in the world, so of course we want to be on it,” said Sara Spivey, chief marketing office at software company Brave. “But the bigger question is Facebook’s responsibility to make its platform safe and if we want to be associated with it.”

But it's unclear how long advertisers will continue to give the platform the cold shoulder.

The majority of Facebook's 8 million advertisers are small businesses who "depend and rely on our platforms," said Carolyn Everson, who heads marketing solutions at Facebook. And Gardideh conceded that many of his clients were likely to return to Facebook because it "is just the best option there is right now, in terms of cost and scale."

The Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge, two Washington-based tech nonprofit groups, announced they are rejecting future funding from Facebook. 

“With over 2.6 billion users, Facebook has a clear responsibility to reckon with its role in these systems or risk continuing to facilitate oppression that imperils Black lives,” OTI Director Sarah Morris said in a statement announcing the news. “While Facebook has suggested it may revisit its policies around false and incendiary political speech, the totality of the company’s words, timing, and actions matters."

The Open Technology Institute received $130,000 in funding from Facebook between June 2019 and June 2020.

Public Knowledge also announced it would no longer accept funding, citing a June 1 meeting between civil rights leaders and Mark Zuckerberg over the moderation of Trump's comments. The group, which has strongly advocated for free speech online, said it stands in solidarity with the civil rights community. 

“Platforms shouldn’t hide behind the First Amendment as an excuse to allow hate, misinformation and abuse to run rampant on their services, particularly when they hold such a dominant position in the marketplace,” said president and chief executive Chris Lewis. “We believe Facebook can do better, and we call upon the company to play a constructive role in allowing a civil discourse online.”

Public Knowledge received more than $25,000 from Facebook in 2018-2019

The announcements are a significant stand against Facebook given the company's prominent role in funding tech organizations in Washington. Facebook spends upward of at least $1 million a year on privacy and technology nonprofit groups and think tanks including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brookings Institute and Access Now.

“We've heard from some organizations about their disagreement with a number of the content decisions we've made and we appreciate their feedback," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing to work with them on these important topics and others.”

But its unclear whether the activism will spread behind Facebook. Both groups count Google and other tech companies among their funders, a relationship that some activists have criticized in the past.

Rant and rave

Kevin Bankston, a former director of OTI who now works at Facebook, said the news was “sad” but that Facebook “can and must do better.”

The digital race to 2020

Joe Biden's campaign ramped up spending on Facebook to target Trump's response to the protests over the killing of George Floyd.  

Biden spent about $5 million last week, or as much money as he did during the first 10 months of his candidacy, Kate Sullivan, Sarah Mucha and Fredreka Schouten at CNN report.

The campaign also spent more than $1 million on Google last week. This week it will launch a new digital ad campaign targeting young voters in battleground states with a recent speech by Biden on racism. 

The Trump campaign spent just $1.27 million on Facebook ads last week, a notable pullback on the campaign's aggressive spending on the platform.

Inside the industry

Twitch co-founder Michael Seibel will join Reddit's board, the company announced today.

Seibel will be taking a position formerly held by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who resigned from the company's board last week with a request that the company replace him with the black board member.

Seibel is a partner at Y Combinator and chief executive of the YC startup accelerator program, which first helped launch Reddit in 2005. Seibel also has a background in politics, previously serving as the finance director for the Maryland Senate campaign of former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume.

“Few people have Michael’s deep background in tech and know the challenges and opportunities we face as well as he does,” said Reddit chief executive and co-founder Steve Huffman, “so we are honored he is joining us. Not to mention, he is one of the smartest and kindest people in tech.”

A new board member could be just the beginning of changes at Reddit in response to renewed concerns over diversity.

Moderators from more than 650 subreddits have signed an open letter to Huffman urging the company to enact a sitewide policy against racism and to be proactive in banning hate-based communities and users. The letter also urges the company to hire more minorities and women.

Workforce report

Employees and activists are pressuring more tech companies to cut ties with local police following recent protests.

Hundreds of Microsoft employees signed a letter requesting that the company cancel contracts with the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement, OneZero's Dave Gershgorn reported.

The letter also asks for the company to support defunding the Seattle Police and formally condemn the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other violent actions toward protesters. “Every one of us in the [email copy] line are either firsthand witnesses or direct victims to the inhumane responses of SPD to peaceful protesting,” the letter said, according to the copy obtained by OneZero. 

"As a company, we need to look inside, examine our organization, and do better," chief executive Satya Nadella responded in a statement.

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group of Amazon employee activists, also signed on in support of defunding the Seattle Police Department. The group has not yet made the same demands of Amazon leadership.

Meanwhile, community activists are pushing Facebook to cease funding to the Menlo Park Police Department, Sarah Emerson at OneZero reports. Facebook pledged $11.2 million to its operations in 2017 and brokered a deal with the city to fund its own police force to patrol its headquarters and the surrounding areas.


Twitter and Square Make Juneteenth a Company Holiday (The New York Times)

Zynn, the Hot New Video App, Is Full of Stolen Content (Wired)


  • George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics will host a virtual forum on the coronavirus and social media disinformation on June 16 at 10 a.m.

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