Twitter Adds Warning To Trump's Tweets As He Spreads Misinformation : The NPR Politics Podcast Twitter has placed a fact-checking warning on a pair of tweets issued by President Trump in which he claims without evidence that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. The label comes in the middle of a series of tweets from the president touting a conspiracy theory.

This episode: Congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and political reporter Miles Parks.

Connect:
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Podcast here.
Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org.
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.
Find and support your local public radio station
NPR logo

Twitter Adds Warning To Trump's Tweets As He Spreads Misinformation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/863435410/863442756" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Twitter Adds Warning To Trump's Tweets As He Spreads Misinformation

MICHAEL: Hey, it's Michael (ph) from Pennsylvania. I'm a high school senior. I've been out of school for two months now, but my school recently made the local news. My school's administrators delivered graduation yard signs to each of the 330 seniors' homes this year to recognize them, including myself. And this podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:06 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27.

MICHAEL: Remember; things might have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: Congratulations. Congratulations to Michael and all the seniors out there who aren't getting to do their whole cap and gown thing. I'm bummed for you, but that's exciting.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: That is super sweet.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I'm Miles Parks, and I cover voting.

DAVIS: And yesterday, for the first time ever, Twitter fact-checked President Trump. A little blue exclamation point appeared on two of his tweets that criticized mail-in voting. Miles, you're our resident voting expert. What did the president say to provoke Twitter to finally draw a line on one of his tweets?

PARKS: Yeah. So this was a tweet yesterday about just generally - it started out just generally about mail voting, basically saying that it's impossible to do without substantial levels of fraud, which, in and of itself, is false if you talk to any election official or anyone who studies this stuff. But then it went on to be even more specific, and President Trump said, basically, that the state of California would be mailing every person, no matter who they were, a ballot in November, which is just not true. California is going to be mailing every registered voter a ballot in November, which is, obviously, a pretty key distinction. Now, what's interesting here is that this isn't really new ground for President Trump, though. I mean, last week, he called out the secretary of state of Michigan for illegally sending, you know, absentee ballot registration forms to people. That was not illegal. So this isn't the first time he's put false information about voting on his Twitter. It just seems like Twitter has made some sort of internal decision to start policing it a little bit more.

DAVIS: Is there any sense that the pandemic is what's changed things? - because, you know, on the mail-in voting question, a lot of this has been raised because more states are looking at mail-in voting because of the pandemic.

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, generally, the social media companies have made it clear that the pandemic has caused them to rethink a lot of their policies. Twitter specifically has deleted tweets about health issues from other world leaders - the president of Brazil and the president of Venezuela. And then they also have come out and said yesterday in a statement to NPR's Bobby Allyn that they're also going to be rethinking their policies about civic integrity and voting. But we don't really know exactly what that means, though. They did say they're going to be rethinking their policies about other things as well. The bottom line is a lot of this is just really vague at this point. We don't know - you know, I'm not an employee of Twitter. I don't know exactly how the conversations are going or what made them ultimately make this decision on this tweet yesterday.

DAVIS: Tam, I have no doubt that the president had some response to this. What did he say?

KEITH: Absolutely. And in one tweet, the president says, Twitter has now shown that everything we've been saying about them and their compatriots is correct. Big action to follow. And then there was this one that hints at possible regulation. He says, Republicans feel that social media platforms totally silence conservative 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, 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.

DAVIS: This week is such a good example of this too because at the same time, the president has continued to tweet for weeks about a conspiracy theory involving cable news host on MSNBC Joe Scarborough. And I don't want us to fall down into all the twists and turns of that conspiracy theory. But, Tam, can you sort of briefly explain what the president has been alleging?

KEITH: What he is alleging is that in 2001, Joe Scarborough murdered an aide. It is completely unfounded. So Joe Scarborough was a member of Congress back then, and a young woman working in one of his offices died tragically. According to the medical examiner, she had an undiagnosed heart condition, fainted - she was alone in the office - hit her head and died. She was found the next morning. Scarborough himself was not in Florida at the time that this happened. He was in Washington, D.C. But the president has been pushing this conspiracy theory that Scarborough was involved in her death. All of this is not true. And her widower has asked Twitter to please take these tweets down. He says in a letter to Jack Dorsey of Twitter that the president has, quote, "taken something that does not belong to him - the memory of my dead wife - and perverted it for perceived political gain."

PARKS: What's really interesting here is that this is, obviously, a really tough issue for Twitter to get into. You know, NPR's Bobby Allyn asked Twitter, basically, you know, you put this label on the mail ballot tweets but did not take down the Scarborough tweets. Why is that? They responded by saying it basically didn't break any of Twitter's rules. If you just look through Twitter's policies, you know, it doesn't incite violence. It's not going to immediately cause physical harm to anyone. It's not even really clear it falls under their harassment policies.

KEITH: I mean, Twitter's policies right now are super-duper-unclear. They label these two tweets about mail-in voting, but there have been so many other tweets from the president about mail-in voting that have also contained information that isn't true or the Scarborough tweets that contain information that isn't true.

DAVIS: Or frankly, any other number of falsehoods.

KEITH: Any other - yes, exactly. And so, what is the threshold? It's not clear.

DAVIS: So the question I think - is Twitter creating a bigger problem here than the one that they've been trying to solve about how you identify and fact-check misinformation or false information on their platform?

PARKS: Yeah. Everyone is going to be angry about it. And I think what's interesting, too, is that, you know, they jumped into this pool to make this decision, and it's not even clear that the decision is doing what they intended to do. There's all this research out there that says fact checks don't necessarily persuade people who believe a conspiracy theory or anything like that. If anything, they can have the opposite effect and make what, you know - what one paper called make the stories more sticky, which I think is really interesting, that, like, they're taking this risk to make conservatives really mad at them. And yet, there's no evidence that this is actually going to help the information sphere.

DAVIS: OK. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about what social media companies are doing to combat misinformation in 2020.

And we're back. And, Miles, this morning you put out a story with the headline - I just need to take a breath first - "Social Media Usage Is At An All-Time High. That Could Be A Nightmare For Democracy." Miles, I love you, but you're always bumming me out, man.

PARKS: I'm sorry, dude.

KEITH: (Laughter).

DAVIS: So what did you find out?

PARKS: So basically, what I found out is information experts - people who study communication online - are terrified right now. You know, they're seeing - we're seeing hoaxes, more bad information about - specifically about the coronavirus - than ever before. It's - the Internet is filled with more disinformation, misinformation - exponentially more than in 2016. Just more people across the globe have access to the Internet, and people are using it for all sorts of different reasons. And so between that and the fact that there's been this growing body of research over the last few years that seems to suggest that social media drives polarization, there's this kind of cocktail of - leading up to the election, as the country stops focusing so much on coronavirus, all of these websites and all of this bad information is probably going to start seeping into the political sphere and either fill people's brains up with wrong information or just make them more divisive. It could really affect the tone of the politics this year.

DAVIS: But after 2016, there was some awareness from social media companies about how their platforms were abused. Facebook and Twitter said they were going to sort of address the problem. Have they done enough? Have they done anything that makes people feel that social media is better now than it was in 2016?

PARKS: When I've talked to experts and just posed that question to them - basically, what have the companies done since 2016? There've been all of these hearings. You know, you've covered them, Sue. The social media - the heads of the social media companies going up to Capitol Hill and getting yelled at by senators and House members for days at a time. And there has been all this talk about all these improvements. And when I ask people who study this stuff, you know, has it really gotten a lot better? They're not really satisfied. There was this report out yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that basically said Facebook had internal research from - in 2018 that their platforms drive polarization. There was a slide that was really searing. It said, our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness. This is a Facebook company slide from a PowerPoint presentation. And what this article said is, basically, these concerns have been brushed aside. You know, they do a lot that looks really good but that people are not satisfied that it's actually attacking the problem.

KEITH: Yeah. A democratic social media expert that I was talking to was saying that outrage is algorithmically favored. Like, the angry face gets moved up in your feed higher than a like or a thumbs up, which is kind of a remarkable thing to think about. You know, a few months ago, I was interviewing an executive from Facebook and talking about these issues and - what are you going to do about it? And at one point, I just asked, wait, are you asking to be regulated? - because she just kept saying, well, you know, we don't know if this is our place to make these sorts of decisions. This is more of a public policy realm. And she said, yes, they are asking to be regulated. Of course, they'd, no doubt, like to shape that regulation. And also, Sue, I don't think that this is something that's going to happen anytime soon based on what we know about Congress.

DAVIS: Certainly not. But at the same time, we've also had four years of messaging to people to say, be wary of social media. Social media divides us. Propaganda campaigns were used to divide us in 2016 and affect how people saw each other in the country and the election. Aren't people - Miles, I'm grasping here for some help. Aren't people maybe a little bit more aware of the fact that social media could be used to manipulate them?

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, I went into reporting this story hoping that was the case. I spent weeks reporting this to NPR Life Kit on how to spot bad information. It came out a couple months ago. Everyone should go listen to it. And I was thinking, you know, I feel like I have gotten to be a better news consumer from reporting on all this stuff. And I'm sure people who have been hearing about all this stuff - have been hearing about it all the time over the last few years - it had to be the case that people have gotten better at this stuff, that people have gotten more educated. But I talked to Peter Pomerantsev, who - he wrote a book about social media disinformation campaigns that came out last year called "This Is Not Propaganda." And I posed this question to him - you know, haven't people gotten better just by hearing about what is happening online? And here's what he said.

PETER POMERANTSEV: You know, so many studies have shown that people can be super-educated and super-critically minded and ignore any evidence that goes against their identity.

PARKS: So basically what you have is, yes, people know more about what's happening but that the human brain has this ability to - when they see information that gets them angry or sad or agrees with their worldview, they're able to just turn off that educated part and believe bad stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: All right. Well, I'm going to go sign out of Facebook and Twitter for the rest of the day. I suggest...

KEITH: And curl up in a little ball under our desks.

PARKS: Go for a walk.

DAVIS: I'm going to go for a nice walk outside and get some fresh air because that is a wrap for today. And it's only Wednesday, but we want to get the word out early. Every week, as you know, we end the show with Can't Let It Go, the segment where we all talk about the things we can't stop thinking about that week, politics or otherwise. And we want to know what you can't let go of. Let us know by recording yourself telling us all about it, and send it to us at nprpolitics@npr.org.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. And I cover voting.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.