On Tuesday, Twitter placed its first fact-checking warning below one of Donald Trump’s tweets, which falsely claimed that postal ballots would be “substantially fraudulent” and could be rigged by Democratic governors. In the days since, the US president’s storm of falsehoods and misleading statements on the social-media platform has continued unabated. To cite just a few: Trump has accused Barack Obama of spying on the US Senate; issued multiple tweets suggesting that a US television host, Joe Scarborough, committed murder; and said that he has been “very fast” in combatting the spread of Covid-19. All of these tweets are demonstrably false but came with no warnings from Twitter, which leaves a number of open questions about the social-media giant’s new policy.
- Does selective fact-checking (correcting just one of multiple falsehoods in the past few days) really help? Or might that simply justify those tweets that don’t come with a warning? Not to mention the research suggesting that correcting conspiracy theories simply draws more attention to the theory itself; many will remember the idea rather than its debunking.
- Do we really want private social-media companies to be the arbiters of right and wrong? Even if they’re simply linking to articles, does that not take away from the responsibility of journalists – or, for that matter, the impetus to create an independent arbiter – to counter falsehoods?
- Does Twitter joining the fray achieve anything other than to draw Trump’s ire (the president was to sign an executive order yesterday and threatened to shut down social-media companies that interfere in the 2020 election)? Is there anyone who will rethink their view of his tweets based on such warnings issued more than three years into his presidency? Could it even be counterproductive by giving Trump and his supporters yet another foil ahead of November’s election?
To be fair, the US is dealing with an impossible problem: how do you counter the falsehoods of a leader in a way that is credible to more than just those who already oppose him? Research suggests that the only foolproof way to change someone’s mind is for them to hear an opposing view from someone they trust. That requires allies on the same side (in this case, Republicans) to speak up. Failing that, there is no easy answer – other than defeating them at the ballot box.