A New Conundrum for Fact-Checking Trump on Twitter


But when President Trump posted a veiled threat in January that Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, had “not paid the price, yet” for helping to spearhead an impeachment inquiry against him, Twitter didn’t put a warning on the tweet.

But when Mr. Trump falsely asserted last week that Michigan’s secretary of state had “illegally” sent out absentee ballot applications for the November election during the pandemic, Twitter did not affix any labels on that message, either.

On Tuesday, Twitter’s handling of Mr. Trump’s tweets — or what some say has been a startling lack of handling — again came to the fore.

That was when the widower of Lori Klausutis, who died in 2001 from complications of an undiagnosed heart condition while working for Joe Scarborough, a Florida congressman at the time, asked Twitter to delete Mr. Trump’s tweets about his late wife. Mr. Trump had posted false conspiracy theories about Ms. Klausutis’s death in recent days, suggesting that Mr. Scarborough was involved, as part of his long-running feud with the MSNBC host.

Twitter said it would not remove Mr. Trump’s posts about Ms. Klausutis, even as her widower called them “horrifying lies,” because they did not violate its terms of service. That echoed what the social media company has repeatedly said about its lack of action on Mr. Trump’s posts: That while his messages may skirt the line of what’s accepted under Twitter’s rules, they never cross it.

The San Francisco company’s latest refusal to take down Mr. Trump’s posts — which are often riddled with falsehoods, inaccuracies and threats — highlights its conundrum with the president. Mr. Trump, who uses Twitter as his social media platform of choice, has brought attention and growth to the company. If Twitter deleted his tweets, it would escalate accusations from conservative politicians that it censors their political views.

Twitter creating a carve-out for public leaders is “misguided,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, who studies disinformation. “If world leaders are not kept to the same standard as everyone else, they wield more power to harass, defame and silence others.”

Twitter is in a tough spot, Ms. Donovan added. If it removed the president’s tweets, he could open an investigation into Twitter or fast-track regulations on the company. But allowing his tweets to remain could keep spreading the misinformation, she said.

That dilemma with Mr. Trump has put Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, under scrutiny. In a series of tweets last October, Mr. Dorsey said the company would ban all political ads from the service because they presented challenges to civic discourse, “all at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.” He worried such ads had “significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

Yet Mr. Dorsey has appeared unwilling to tackle Mr. Trump’s tweets even though disinformation experts said political tweets from world leaders often reach a wider audience than political ads and have a greater power to misinform.

On Tuesday, Mr. Dorsey faced fresh criticism over Mr. Trump’s tweets about Ms. Klausutis. Apart from the plea from her widower, Timothy Klausutis, to remove the posts, Mr. Scarborough also called the tweets “unspeakably cruel.” Others, including Katie Couric and the CNN anchor Jake Tapper, expressed sympathy for the Klausutis family, with Mr. Tapper calling Mr. Trump’s tweets “malicious lies.”

“We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family,” a Twitter spokesman, Nick Pacilio, said in a statement. “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 declined further comment.

Some of the renewed criticism appeared to push Twitter to act. On Tuesday afternoon, it marked two of Mr. Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots with a “Get the facts” link to more information.

Twitter is not the only tech company struggling with moderating Mr. Trump’s threats and falsehoods online. Mr. Trump posted identical comments about Ms. Klausutis’s death on Facebook. One of his posts there gained about 4,000 comments and 2,000 shares and was not mentioned by Mr. Klausutis. On Twitter, that same post, which questioned whether Mr. Scarborough had gotten away with murder, was shared 31,000 times and received 23,000 replies.

Twitter faces singular pressure because it is Mr. Trump’s most frequently used method of communicating with the public. Early in his presidency, he tweeted about nine times a day, but has accelerated his pace, averaging 29 tweets a day last year and posting up to 108 times on May 10, according to a tally by The New York Times.

For years, Twitter took a hands-off approach to moderating the posts on its platform. That brought it acclaim when it enabled dissidents to tweet about political protests, like the Egyptian revolution in 2011. But it also allowed trolls, bots and malicious operatives onto the site, making Twitter an epicenter for harassment, misinformation and abuse.

During Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, his aggressive Twitter tactics attracted attention and were mimicked by his supporters. That led Twitter to clamp down on harassment and grapple with the kinds of political speech it would allow. Revelations about election interference and disinformation campaigns on Twitter during the 2016 campaign prompted further changes.

In 2018, Mr. Dorsey said he would focus on molding the platform to support “healthy” conversations.

“We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” he tweeted at the time. “We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”

But Mr. Trump himself has escaped enforcement. Although he has sometimes deleted his own tweets when they contain misspellings, Twitter has largely left his posts alone.

That hands-off treatment has been controversial inside Twitter. In 2017, a rogue Twitter worker deactivated Mr. Trump’s account. The account was reinstated in about 10 minutes.

Critics have piled on over time. Last year, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, asked Mr. Dorsey to suspend Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. In a letter to Ms. Harris, Twitter reiterated its public stance on tweets by world leaders and said it would err on the side of leaving the posts up if there was a public interest in doing so.

Other world leaders have not enjoyed similar freedom on Twitter. Tweets from the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, that promoted unproven cures for the coronavirus were recently removed.

Twitter has maintained that Mr. Trump does not violate its policies and that the company would take action if he crossed the line.

“We believe it’s important that the world sees how global leaders think and how they act. And we think the conversation that ensues around that is critical,” Mr. Dorsey said in an interview with HuffPost last year. If Mr. Trump posted something that violated Twitter’s policies, Mr. Dorsey added, “we’d certainly talk about it.”

Kate Conger reported from Oakland, Calif., and Davey Alba from New York. Ben Decker contributed reporting.





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