Twitter tantrum

On Tuesday, for the first time, Twitter took a small step to reign in Trump's destructive behavior. The company appended a tiny warning to a series of blatantly inaccurate tweets about mail-in voting. 

Over the next 48 hours, Trump threw a tantrum.

First, Trump accusedTwitter of violating his right to free speech. 

.@Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election. 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. Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!

Then, Trump claimed Twitter (and other social media companies) of "silencing" conservative voices.

Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. 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...Social Media. Clean up your act, NOW!!!!

Finally, he issued an ominous threat.

Twitter has now shown that everything we have been saying about them (and their other compatriots) is correct. Big action to follow!

Nothing Trump said is true, and he is unlikely to take any meaningful action. He does not have the power to "close" social media platforms. A White House official said Trump would "sign an executive order regarding social media companies" on Thursday. 

But Trump's rant nevertheless serves a critical purpose. Trump's reelection strategy relies on his ability to repeatedly break the rules that Twitter and Facebook have established for everyone else. Up until very recently, both platforms were happy to let him do whatever he wants.

Trump's outburst was a warning shot. If you attempt to enforce your rules, I will declare war on your company. He is attempting to intimidate these companies so he can fully exploit their platforms in advance of the 2020 election. 

The wrong man

Trump's tweets were part of a multi-pronged attack. On Fox & Friends, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway targeted Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of site integrity. She blamed Roth for the decision to fact check Trump's tweets and, in an apparent effort to subject Roth to online harassment, spelled out Roth's Twitter handle. "Somebody in San Francisco will wake him up and tell him he's about to get a lot more followers,” Conway said.

Roth's crime was that he is not a fan of Trump and has tweeted negative comments about Republicans. 

Conway and Fox News have the story wrong. Roth "heads the platform’s Site Integrity team, which deals with platform manipulation, bots, and foreign interference campaigns — not fact-checking." He was "not responsible for fact-checking Trump’s tweets."

Twitter still giving Trump special treatment

As Popular Information reported last week, Twitter announced in April 2019 that it prohibits "use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes." This specifically includes "misleading claims about process procedures or techniques which could dissuade people from participating." Twitter states that "[t]he first time you violate this policy, we will require you to remove this content."

In this case, Trump claimed that a significant number of mail-in ballots are "fraudulent" and will contribute to a "rigged" election. These claims are false, and both could discourage participation — especially when voting by mail is the only way many people will be able to vote safely.   

A Twitter spokesperson stated that the warnings were applied because Trump's tweets "contain potentially misleading information about voting processes." But the information Twitter users receive after clicking the warnings, which summarize a variety of fact-checkers, makes clear that Trump's tweets do contain misleading information. 

Under the terms of Twitter's policy, the tweets should be removed. But Twitter has created a more lenient approach for Trump. 

Twitter did not remove (or attach warnings) to two tweets Trump posted last week falsely claiming that ballots and ballot applications sent to voters in Michigan and Nevada were "illegal."

The policy is applied, sometimes arbitrarily, to typical users. One user was suspended from Twitter for posting "misleading information about voting." But the tweet was a clearly satirical fake quote from Joe Biden. The user shared Twitter's email explaining the suspension. 

The Republican takeover 

Trump claims that social media companies "silence conservative voices." This persistent complaint is baseless and obscures a real problem: policymaking at Facebook, the largest social network, is dominated by Republicans.

The three leaders of Facebook's powerful DC office — Joel Kaplan, Katie Harbath, and Kevin Martin — are all Republican operatives. Three former employees of Facebook's DC office told Popular Information last October that the group's decision making reflects their political backgrounds. 

"Decisions are made to benefit Republicans because they are paranoid about their reputation among conservative Republicans, particularly Trump," the former Facebook employee said.  The other former Facebook employees did not agree to be quoted. 

Kaplan, who runs Facebook's global public policy, was deputy chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration. He now "serves as an advocate for right-wing sites on Facebook." A former Facebook employee told Popular Information that "[a]ny time there was an issue with Breitbart or Daily Caller, Joel made the decision, and he always acted to protect them." 

The Wall Street Journal reported that Kaplan "pushed [Facebook] to partner with right-wing news site The Daily Caller’s fact-checking division" after conservatives complained that other fact-checkers, like the Associated Press, had a liberal bias. Kaplan overruled other executives in the DC office who noted that the Daily Caller frequently published misinformation. 

Popular Information has documented how the Daily Caller has used its power as an official Facebook fact-checker to boost Trump

Trump is well aware of the influence of Republicans at Facebook. "Kaplan...played a key role in organizing support for Trump Supreme Court pick Brett M. Kavanaugh," who is one of Kaplan's closest friends. Trump dined with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Peter Theil, one of Trump's biggest supporters. But Trump continues to issue charges of left-wing bias because it maximizes his leverage and gives him space to fully exploit the platform.

Top photo credit: Getty Images

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