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Trump lashes out at social media companies after Twitter labels tweets with fact checks

The president tweeted claims earlier in the week about fraudulent mail-in ballots

The Trump campaign’s version of the story illustrates a successful — and often inaccurate — picture of the president's response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Atthar Mirza/The Washington Post)

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President Trump and his supporters lashed out against social media companies Wednesday, targeting a Twitter executive with personal attacks and escalating a battle with the social media company over using a fact-check label on his tweets for the first time this week.

The White House told reporters Wednesday that the president would sign an executive order “pertaining to social media,” but didn’t provide further details.

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,” Trump tweeted earlier Wednesday. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can’t let a more sophisticated version of that .... happen again.”

He threatened in a later tweet regarding Twitter that there was “Big action to follow!”

The move by Twitter, a response to longstanding criticism that the company is too hands-off when it comes to policing misinformation and falsehoods from world leaders, escalates tensions between Washington and Silicon Valley in an election year. It took aim at two Trump tweets that contended mail-in ballots are fraudulent. Twitter’s label says, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” and redirects users to news articles about Trump’s unsubstantiated claim.

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.”

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.

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

Twitter’s actions come as Silicon Valley companies are trying to show how they are prepared to tackle abuse ahead of a consequential presidential election. But they also play into Trump’s election-year agenda, in which he already has started railing against alleged bias by social media companies.

Twitter on May 26 placed a fact-check label on President Trump’s tweets, warning readers his claims about mail-in ballots were unsubstantiated. (Video: Reuters)

Last year, congressional committees held hearings on the subject, and Trump has hosted Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at the White House to complain he was losing followers. (He has 80.3 million.) The Department of Justice is also investigating some tech giants over potential abuses of market power.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump was considering creating a White House panel that would examine complaints of bias against conservatives on social media and other online platforms.

Trump accuses social media companies of ‘terrible bias’ at White House summit decried by critics

Trump and his surrogates have some of the most popular accounts on social platforms but frequently protest that the social media companies censor their voices. The reality is far more complicated: Twitter has been cracking down on spam, fake accounts and abuse far more aggressively in recent years, a move that has affected liberals and conservatives alike.

While the leadership and rank and file of tech companies tend to lean liberal — Dorsey himself is a proponent of left-leaning causes such as the Black Lives Matter movement — Silicon Valley leaders also say platforms should not intervene too strongly in content decisions, lest they risk losing a legal status that protects them from being held responsible for illegal content on their sites.

Republicans are already questioning those legal protections. On Wednesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) tweeted that "if Twitter and Google and the rest are going to editorialize and censor and act like traditional publishers, they should be treated like traditional publishers and stop receiving the special carve out from the federal government in Section 230,” referring to the law that gives tech companies immunity from prosecution. A similar complaint came from Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) on Tuesday night.

Right-wing media figures and the president’s son Eric Trump also targeted a Twitter executive Tuesday night after a New York Post reporter resurfaced his anti-Trump tweets from three years ago. The Trump supporters claimed he was responsible for the decision to label Trump’s misleading tweets, leading to a rash of personal attacks.

"It’s incredibly disappointing that people are attacking an individual for a company decision,” said Brandon Borrman, Twitter’s vice president of global communications.

The executive, Yoel Roth, is on the team that made the decision, Borrman said. Over the past two years, that team has been part of a broader effort to supplement misleading tweets by powerful people with valid information, as well as to crack down on abuse.

Executives started in March by labeling some tweets that included manipulated or doctored images, including a video of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that was retweeted by Trump. In May, the company said it would add the fact-check labels to misleading tweets about the coronavirus and would expand the labels to more categories. Shortly after, the team made the decision to extend the labels to misleading information about elections, said a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted on the internal deliberations.

The choice to label Trump’s tweet was ultimately made by the company’s general counsel in concert with the acting head of policy, the person said. It took several hours of debate for company leaders to agree that Trump’s tweet did not break any Twitter rules but was still misleading, because they believed it could drive people to avoid filling out a ballot they received in the mail. Dorsey signed off on the decision shortly before the label went live.

Trump on Wednesday again tweeted his claims regarding mail-in ballots.

“Just like we can’t let large scale Mail-In Ballots take root in our Country. It would be a free for all on cheating, forgery and the theft of Ballots. Whoever cheated the most would win. Likewise, Social Media. Clean up your act, NOW!!!!”

How conservatives learned to wield power inside Facebook

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

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 Dorsey to delete tweets by Trump furthering a baseless conspiracy theory about the staffer’s death. Those tweets are still up, a reflection of social media companies’ approach to policing content that can appear inconsistent even as they have stepped up their enforcement.

Twitter is debating whether to take action on the Scarborough tweets, said a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Unlike the election issues or issues of manipulated video, Twitter does not have a clear policy with which to address the issues of the widower, and it does not want to set a precedent that it is acting arbitrarily, said the person familiar with the deliberations.

Widower of Joe Scarborough staffer seeks removal of Trump tweets that promote baseless conspiracy theory

Twitter’s 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 said it did not plan to label or remove the post. “We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said.

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

Many Silicon Valley companies have long given exceptions on their policies to political leaders and public figures on the grounds that what they say is newsworthy.

But increasingly, that so-called “newsworthiness exemption" has been called into question by leaders at tech companies, which have reckoned with the ability of powerful people to use their platforms to cause harm.

And the potentially dire consequences of misinformation during a pandemic have pushed the tech companies to take more aggressive stances. In March, Twitter removed tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, arguing that their comments about breaking social distancing orders and touting false cures had huge potential for harm.