Twitter and Facebook are not fact-checking factually unsupported claims about mail-in voting in the 2020 election posted by President Trump on both platforms Wednesday. The inaction has angered some critics, who say these companies allow the spread of dangerous misinformation to go unchecked online, harming the integrity of the election as a whole.
Trump’s posts made the completely unsubstantiated assertion that universal vote-by-mail, a practice in which states automatically mail a ballot to all registered voters, will lead to the most “inaccurate” and “fraudulent” election in history, and then went on to suggest delaying the election “until people can properly, securely, and safely vote.”
With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2020
Top Republican and Democrat legislators quickly shut down Trump’s suggestion that the US should delay the election, something the president would need the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives’ approval for. It would be illegal if he tried to delay the election using his own authority.
Meanwhile, as my Vox colleague Ian Millhiser has explained, there is no substantial evidence that voting by mail will lead to inaccurate or fraudulent results. In fact, Oregon has only seen about a dozen cases of fraud out of 100 million mail-in ballots in the past two decades. Trump has nevertheless made a habit of casting doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in voting. The president’s latest comments are part of a larger pattern of him attacking the integrity of the 2020 election by making untrue statements on the matter.
So why aren’t Facebook and Twitter doing anything about the misinformation in Trump’s latest post?
A spokesperson for Facebook told Recode that the company won’t take action because of its long-standing policy of not fact-checking politicians. (The company did place a link to voter registration information underneath Trump’s post, something it does for all posts about voting in the election.) The hands-off policy toward moderating politicians is in line with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s philosophy of making Facebook an open platform for discussion and not being an “arbiter of truth” on political matters. This is something civil rights organizations, advertisers, and even some of Zuckerberg’s own employees have increasingly decried.
Twitter, however, does reserve the right to fact-check politicians under its misinformation policies. In May, the company placed a warning label over a pair of Trump posts falsely claiming that mail-in voting in California would lead to fraud. When Recode asked Twitter why the company fact-checked Trump on his earlier post containing false claims about mail-in voting but failed to do so this time around, a spokesperson for the company told Recode that, under the company’s policies, Twitter does not take down “broad, non-specific statements” about the integrity of elections or civic processes.
Social media companies’ inaction on the posts was swiftly met by resistance from civil liberties groups such as Color of Change and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
.@Twitter: Trump’s latest tweet should be removed. He needs to be removed from your platform. Elections in many states will rely on the very mail-in ballots he’s falsely tweeting about & his ability to spread mass voter misinformation here only aids his plans of being re-elected— ColorOfChange (@ColorOfChange) July 30, 2020
Similarly, Jesse Lehrich, the co-founder of the nonprofit Accountable Tech, which is pushing Facebook to tighten its rules on harmful speech, warned that by doing nothing social media companies could exacerbate the problem of misinformation online. “Platforms should immediately remove — or clearly label and limit the reach of — this morning’s post and implement election misinformation policies that are responsive to the threats we face,” Lehrich said in a statement.
It’s understandable why tech companies like Facebook and Twitter don’t want to be seen as overly meddling in political issues, as this could invite complaints that they’re favoring one side over the other. In a congressional hearing on antitrust on Wednesday, Republicans hammered Zuckerberg as well as Google CEO Sundar Pichai for alleged “anti-conservative bias.” To support these accusations, the lawmakers offered shaky evidence, including the removal of harmful conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his family related to the coronavirus.
Trump’s recent statements also come at a time when his administration is facing accusations of hindering the United States Postal Service. While the USPS has long been struggling, particularly during the pandemic, it’s faced new reports of financial strain under a new, Trump-appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. Under DeJoy’s leadership, the USPS has reportedly been planning to delay mail delivery and slash post office hours to save money.
One thing that his latest posts made clear is that Trump is escalating his attacks on the legitimacy of the US election process via social media — which, if it translates to real-world action, could send the country into what many have argued is dangerous and potentially constitutional-crisis territory. The question for Facebook and Twitter is to what extent they will continue to be hands-off.