Twitter Adds Fact-Check Notices to Trump Tweets on Mail-In Ballots
| le 27 May 2020
Move follows earlier appeal by widower that president’s false tweets about death of his wife be pulled down
By Rebecca Ballhaus
and Georgia Wells – The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—Twitter Inc. on Tuesday for the first time applied a fact-checking notice to a tweet from President Trump, hours after the social-media company denied a widower’s request to delete the president’s posts circulating conspiracy theories about his wife’s death.
The twin decisions are likely to stir partisans on both sides of the political debate, with one arguing Silicon Valley should play a more active role in policing Mr. Trump’s social-media activity, while the other considers such moves akin to censorship.
Twitter applied the fact-checking notices late Tuesday to two tweets from the president about the potential for fraud involving mail-in ballots. With a small label—“Get the facts about mail-in ballots”—and a link to more information, Twitter alerted its users that those claims were unsubstantiated.
The tweets “contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots,” a Twitter spokesman said.
Twitter’s move was based on a policy announced earlier this month to apply fact-checking labels about the coronavirus and other disputed issues subject to misinformation, including the election. This marked the first time Twitter has applied the fact-checking label to a message about non-Covid news.
Mr. Trump late Tuesday accused Twitter of interfering in the election. “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!” he wrote in a tweet.
Early Wednesday, the president tweeted that Republicans felt social-media platforms were trying to “totally silence” conservatives: “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”
And he again took aim at mail-in ballots, writing in a tweet: “It would be a free for all on cheating, forgery and the theft of Ballots.”
Twitter staff warned Trump’s team previously that a May 20 tweet about voter fraud risked triggering the company to take action, according to a person familiar with the matter. That tweet wrongly said Michigan had sent absentee ballots to people ahead of the primaries. In fact, Michigan had sent absentee ballot applications. Mr. Trump deleted the tweet.
On Tuesday Mr. Trump revisited the voting topic, even as fresh controversy swirled over the president’s tweets falsely suggesting that former lawmaker and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had played a role in the 2001 death of a congressional aide. Twitter later said it wouldn’t take action on the posts related to Mr. Scarborough.
Twitter’s policy is to lock users’ accounts, if they violate rules against harassment or spam-like behavior unless the users delete the tweets. Last year, the company said it would begin flagging tweets by government officials and political figures who violate its rules.
Before Tuesday, Twitter had not taken any action against Mr. Trump, even though his critics have said some posts flouted the company’s policies.
In the instance of Mr. Trump’s tweets about the conspiracies surrounding the Scarborough aide’s death, a spokesman for Twitter said the messages didn’t qualify as harassment under the company’s policy because the people mentioned in the posts are public figures.
The Twitter spokeswoman said in a written statement Tuesday: “We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family.”
Mika Brzezinski, the co-host and wife of Mr. Scarborough, on Tuesday expressed outrage that Twitter was choosing to respond to the mail-in ballot tweets and not those baselessly accusing her husband of murder. “Ummmmm…WOW,” she wrote, tagging Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey. “You are kidding us right?”
Timothy Klausutis, the widower of Mr. Scarborough’s former aide, had written to Mr. Dorsey last week asking him to delete the president’s tweets about his wife.
“I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him—the memory of my dead wife—and perverted it for perceived political gain,” he wrote, according to an email first published by the New York Times.
Referring to theories that have circulated online for years, falsely suggesting Mr. Scarborough was involved in the death, Mr. Klausutis wrote: “The frequency, intensity, ugliness and promulgation of these horrifying lies ever increases on the internet. These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform.”
Lori Klausutis died in July 2001 at the age of 28. At the time, she was working for Mr. Scarborough, then a Republican congressman in Florida. Local authorities said at the time there was no evidence of foul play, and the Okaloosa County associate medical examiner, Michael Berkland, said an undiagnosed heart condition had caused her to collapse and hit her head on the side of a desk in Mr. Scarborough’s Fort Walton Beach congressional office.
The president has tweeted or retweeted about Ms. Klausutis’s death a half-dozen times this month to attack Mr. Scarborough, a persistent critic of the Trump administration who has excoriated Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on his program, “Morning Joe.”
After first tweeting about the case in 2017—incorrectly referring to it as an “unsolved mystery”—Mr. Trump returned to the issue on May 4, urging MSNBC owner Comcast Corp. to “open up a long overdue Florida Cold Case against Psycho Joe Scarborough.” His tweet came during a “Morning Joe” episode that featured criticism of the president’s response to the virus.
On May 12, Mr. Trump tweeted of Mr. Scarborough: “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.”
Mr. Trump, asked about his tweets about Mr. Scarborough later Tuesday at the White House, defended his calls for an investigation, calling the matter “certainly a very suspicious situation.” Mr. Trump said he had seen Mr. Klausutis’s letter but dismissed its request. “I’m sure that ultimately they want to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Lawmakers in both parties have criticized the president’s tweets about the matter, calling for him to focus on the pandemic and not promote false accusations against his critics. “Just stop. Stop spreading it, stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) on Saturday.
Mr. Scarborough on Tuesday tweeted several excerpts from Mr. Klausutis’s letter. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Twitter’s fact check of Mr. Trump’s tweet appeared to contain its own misleading statement, however, stating that “mail-in ballots are already used in some states, including Oregon, Utah and Nebraska.” That statement appears to conflate automatic all-mail voting with absentee ballots in regards to at least one state.
While all states allow absentee voting via the mail, only a handful of states including Oregon and Utah automatically send registered voters mail-in ballots. Nebraska, in contrast, recently mailed applications to every voter—in response to the pandemic, and the state didn’t automatically send ballots.
The mistake raised questions about Twitter’s ability to serve as an independent service to fact check statements by Mr. Trump or other political figures on its service. Late Tuesday, Twitter updated its language to remove reference to Nebraska and instead stated that “five states already vote entirely by mail and all states offer some form of mail-in absentee voting.”