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Twitter faces conservative backlash for fact-checking Trump's tweets for the first time

Twitter slapped a label on the president's tweets about mail-in ballots.

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- 03:40
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Twitter is taking action against Trump's tweets for the first time.

Angela Lang/CNET

Twitter added a label to President Donald Trump's tweets on Tuesday for containing "potentially misleading information about voting processes," a rare move that's reignited tensions between the social network and conservative users.

The move marked the first time that Twitter displayed a label on Trump's tweets and indicated the company was taking a tougher stance against misinformation.

Twitter added a label to Trump's tweets on Tuesday.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that "There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-in-Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent," a claim that has been debunked by fact-checkers and news organizations. He continued his remarks in another tweet, stating that it will be a "Rigged Election." 

A label appears under both tweets that reads: "Get the facts about mail-in ballots." Clicking on the warning notice directs people to a page explaining that fact-checkers say there isn't any evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud. Trump also falsely stated in his tweets that California will send mail-in ballots to "anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there" when only registered voters will receive ballots. States such as Oregon, Utah and Washington have long conducted elections by mail only, while states such as Nebraska allow any voter to request a ballot and vote by mail without having to provide a reason.

A Twitter spokeswoman said in a statement the decision to label the tweet is in line with the company's approach to misinformation on its site, which includes adding warning notices and labels depending on the likelihood and severity of harm a tweet could cause.

Twitter's actions have increased tensions between the company and conservative users, who allege the social network suppresses their speech. Twitter has repeatedly denied those allegations. Earlier this month, Trump tweeted the "Radical Left" is in control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google and said his administration is working on a solution.

In two tweets, Trump accused Twitter on Tuesday of interfering in the 2020 US presidential election. 

"Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!," he tweeted.

Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, also fired at Twitter for adding a label to the president's tweets. "We always knew that Silicon Valley would pull out all the stops to obstruct and interfere with President Trump getting his message through to voters. Partnering with the biased fake news media 'fact checkers' is only a smoke screen Twitter is using to try to lend their obvious political tactics some false credibility," Parscale said in a statement.

He also added that the Trump campaign pulled all advertising from Twitter months ago for many reasons including "their clear political bias." Twitter banned political ads in 2019. 

The Brennan Center for Justice said in an analysis that "while mail ballots are more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting, it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud." Trump has voted by absentee ballot in US elections, according to fact-checking organization Snopes.

The pushback against Twitter continued on Wednesday. Trump said in a tweet that Twitter "has now shown that everything we have been saying about them (and their other compatriots) is correct," vowing that a "big action" would follow. He didn't specify what this action would be. Trump has been considering a commission to investigate social media for alleged bias against conservatives.

Conservative users have also been criticizing Yoel Roth, who oversees site integrity on Twitter, for previously posting anti-Trump tweets. Roth wrote a blog post about Twitter's new labels earlier in May, but Twitter General Counsel Sean Edgett said during the company's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday that the decision to label Trump's tweet was made by a group, not a single person. 

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Trump made the same remarks about mail-in ballots on Facebook. The social network doesn't send posts from politicians to third-party fact checkers.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Twitter's move contrasts with Facebook's efforts to handle political speech. Facebook doesn't send posts and ads from politicians to its third-party fact checkers. Trump posted the same remarks about mail-in ballots on Facebook in a post that got 169,000 reactions and was shared more than 17,000 times.

"We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement.

Twitter's move came on the same day that the company drew criticism for not removing tweets by Trump that falsely suggested Joe Scarborough, a former US congressman, may have murdered staffer Lori Klausutis in 2001. Klausutis died when she was 28 years old after she suffered from an abnormal heart rhythm, fell and hit her head on a desk, according to Politifact. Timothy Klausutis, Lori's husband, wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on May 21 asking the company to pull down Trump's tweets, but the social network said that they didn't violate its rules. Twitter has left up Trump's tweets in the past, citing the public interest.

It's unclear how well Twitter's fact-checking labels work. The company started rolling them out on May 11. Twitter has been using automated technology to add labels to misleading tweets about the coronavirus too. CNET found Twitter was making scores of mistakes including labeling tweets that include news articles and denounce the conspiracy theory that 5G causes the coronavirus. 

Both of Trump's tweets about mail-in ballots were retweeted more than 37,600 times and garnered roughly 131,800 likes combined as of Tuesday afternoon. People have to click on the label to learn why a tweet was flagged by the company. 

There's no way for users to appeal Twitter's decision to add a label to their tweet. Users also don't get notified when their tweets get labeled for sharing misleading or disputed information.

MIT researchers have found that labeling false news could result in users believing stories that hadn't gotten labels even if they contained misinformation in what's called the "implied truth effect." 

Twitter didn't immediately have data available about how many users clicked on the label to learn more about mail-in ballots. A company spokeswoman said Trump's tweets are the only ones labeled so far because of its election integrity policy. 

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