Trump’s preferred lying platform, Twitter, can fact check him all it wants, it can label his tweets for violating rules against glorifying violence but none of this will stop him ever. Still, Twitter made an attempt to signal the mendacity of his tweets to the Twitterverse by including a small link below that tweet that led to more reliable information about the topic. Trump was railing against mail-in-ballots. Then he railed against Twitter for fact-checking him. But what came next was much uglier.
As the protests over the senseless killing of George Floyd spread from Minneapolis around the country, Trump tweeted: “….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
This was just the beginning of the president inciting violence against his fellow citizens. He also did so on a call with state governors, shamefully showing not only a lack of humanity but an utter lack of understanding the extremely limited use of the military inside the U.S. Twitter left the tweet accessible but with the language “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”
Fake news is nothing new, it just used to be called propaganda. And our most recent battle against it is fought on three fronts. Governments can pass laws that take aim at disinformation, but these are either ineffectual or amount to censorship. The most hopeful front is in educating people to think more critically about what they read but this is a very tall order and forgets that we tend to believe what fits into our own accepted partisan narrative. Finally, perhaps the weakest front, is that of the news media or social media itself.
The news media, at its best already plays a fact-checking role with any government — that’s what it means to be the “fourth estate” watchdog of the government. If the news isn’t critical then there’s no point to our work. Fact checking in the news media has been growing in the past years and we now have more and more research that comes to some conflicting conclusions about it.
A 2019 meta-analysis from Northwestern University, University of Haifa, and Temple University synthesized the findings of 30 studies published between 2013 and 2018. The researchers found that the most effective fact-checking are messages that correct an entire statement. This is where Twitter’s attempt is pretty good. The truth-meters and scales provided by some fact-checking websites are less effective, according to the study.
And here comes the important and frustrating part: fact-checking that corrects an assertion that contradicts someone’s personal ideology can be effective. But if the assertion matches someone’s personal ideology, then it isn’t effective. In other words, we believe what we want to believe, fact-checkers be damned. Most Americans and people around the world already know that Trump is lying. Yet, his supporters think that the fact-checkers are partisan hacks.
It comes as no surprise that Trump and his supporters have accused Twitter of taking partisan-motivated action against him. In response, he tweeted (do I need to note the irony?) “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….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!!!!” Hence, the fact-checking becomes nothing more than a partisan rallying cry.
Further, by offering fact-checking, Twitter leans into playing the role of the media, a role that most social media has widely shunned. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg responded to Twitter’s move by telling Fox News “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” Zuckerberg’s long-held stance on any sort of censorship might be ethically challenged and Facebook employees have recently protested it but it helps protect the company from accusations that it is favoring some views and censoring others. Once the social media platforms start fact-checking political statements, they effectively become the media.
The battle against lies and fake news in the media is a futile one because there is no effective way to fight it and expecting social media platforms or the news media to censure it in some way is fraught with the same issues that make any type of censorship dangerous. Americans will hopefully dump Trump as president this coming November but that won’t end it. The world won’t ever be completely rid of Trump and his look-a-likes. I like to think that they are there to remind us that democracy requires all voices, even the ones we find ugly or repugnant. We can listen, argue, protest and most importantly, vote.
This piece was published in Spanish in El Español.