Commentary

Social Media Wrestles With False Election Claims

Nearly 75 million people elected Joe Biden president. He recaptured the blue wall — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — and is likely to flip two red states — Arizona and Georgia — blue. By the time the Electoral College is finalized, Biden may hit 306.

That’s a mandate — or in Donald Trump’s words, a “landslide.”

But depending on the media outlet, the distance between truth and illusion is a wide Sargasso Sea. That is, people become trapped in their own bubbles. And that’s particularly true in the social-media universe, which is a hotbed of both political information and political conspiracies.

The people spoke — but Trump, unable to accept the will of the electorate, challenged that decision via tweet.

So how did social media perform during the election count?

President Trump claimed a bogus victory Nov. 6 at 3 a.m. Twitter flagged the tweet as premature. On Saturday, just before the AP called the 2020 election for Biden, Trump again tweeted, in caps, for anyone unfamiliar with either shouting or dramatic emphasis: “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” That tweet was also flagged as false and misleading. In some cases, offending posts were obscured, making it harder to read and share. (Current tweets carry red warning labels.)

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Given Trump's many incendiary and false tweets about COVID-19 and the election, will Twitter permanently suspend his account Jan. 21, 2021, the day after the inauguration?

As a private citizen, his tweets will no longer be presidential fodder. He loses the “public interest” safeguard on his personal account — which could be a game-changer for his party.

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon called for the executions of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray in an online video on Nov. 5 — and his Twitter account was permanently suspended.

Facebook shuttered a pro-Trump group called “Stop The Steal,” which was coordinating protests to challenge the election’s legitimacy, the same day. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that tracks extremism, certain group members were encouraging a civil war and a revolt against the U.S. government.

"A contested election creates the perfect conditions for extremists to create chaos, to sow division, and to try to undermine our democratic institutions," tweeted Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL's Center on Extremism.

To ensure users got credible information as the votes were counted, Twitter’s “Election Hub” showed tweets and information from reliable news sources. Facebook and Instagram posted confirmed results — and warnings — when appropriate.

Google’s YouTube wasn’t as responsible. The “Trump won” video, posted by conservative cable network One American News on Wednesday morning, Nov. 4, was up for 24 hours. It made claims, without proof, of “rampant voter fraud” against Republican ballots, while pushing viewers to “take action” against Democrats. Before it was tagged with a warning note, it received 300,000+ views.

Yet even Ben Ginsberg, considered the most prominent Republican election lawyer in the country, said he saw no evidence of fraud post-election. In fact, Ginsberg, who represented George W. Bush during the hotly contested 2000 Florida count, wrote a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post charging the Trump campaign’s lawsuits and strategies were designed to suppress votes.

Ginsberg wrote, “This attempted disenfranchisement of voters cannot be justified by the unproven Republican dogma about widespread fraud. Challenging voters at the polls or disputing the legitimacy of mail-in ballots isn't about fraud.”

Social-media platforms are not the government. They are private entities, and therefore, have no First Amendment obligation to protect freedom of speech. (Equal access, like immunity, is a separate argument.)

Politics is a heated subject — and when tempers flare, truth is often its first victim.

It’s all too easy to roll out misinformation — left or right — on social media. (Both a Democrat and a Republican were tagged by Twitter for prematurely announcing a victory in Wisconsin and North Carolina, respectively.) But one aspect of responsible leadership, be it the CEOs of social networks or politicians, should be to prevent the spread of hateful or untrue material, which does untold damage to democratic institutions.

A democracy budgets for disagreements. Finding common ground isn’t a pipe dream; it’s in the best interests of its citizenry. False claims and fanaticism inflame tensions and destroy the opportunity for dialogue.

Or as Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”

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