The confusing and misleading parts of their fact-check show the difficulty that accompanies social media platforms acting as fact-checkers, too.
- For the first time, Twitter on Tuesday rolled out a feature to flag President Trump's tweets about voting by mail as misleading in an effort to provide more context and fact-check them.
- The platform added a "get the facts about mail-in ballots" banner below Trump tweets falsely claiming that mail ballots in California will be "substantially fraudulent," "stolen from mailboxes," and sent to non-voters.
- Twitter's fact-check section contradicted itself by both saying that mail-in ballots are "very rarely linked to voter fraud" and, right below it, that there is "no evidence" linking mail-in ballots to fraud.
- Twitter also misleadingly grouped together Oregon, Utah, and Nebraska's vote-by-mail policies.
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After months of President Donald Trump falsely claiming that absentee voting and voting by mail would lead to extensive voter fraud and corruption on his Twitter account, the social-media platform rolled out a feature to fact-check and provide more context to his misleading and incorrect statements.
Shortly after the feature launched, Trump claimed Twitter was "completely stifling FREE SPEECH" by adding a fact-check underneath his tweets. On Wednesday morning, he threatened to "strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen."
Twitter, as a private company, is well within its rights to add fact-checks to users' content, and Trump has no authority to unilaterally shut down the platform. But the company's initial effort to fact-check his false tweets on vote by mail was somewhat misleading and confusing itself, with Twitter later correcting at least one part of its fact-check.
The entire episode reveals the challenges of social-media platforms taking on the role of fact-checkers and arbiters of truth on complicated issues like US elections, the details and procedures of which vary from state to state.
On Tuesday morning, Trump fired off a series of tweets repeating a usual, unsubstantiated refrain that "there is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In-Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent" in the 2020 election.
He declared, without evidence, that "mailboxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed" in California, falsely charging that the state is sending ballots to "anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there."
Trump's tweets come as the Republican National Committee and other Republican groups are suing in the state of California, which already has high levels of mail-in voting, over Gov. Gavin Newsom issuing an executive order to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot for the November presidential election.
A Twitter spokesperson told Insider that Trump's tweets "contain potentially misleading information about voting processes and have been labeled to provide additional context around mail-in ballots," in line with previous policies it rolled out earlier this month to either remove or add labels and warnings to flag content that spreads misinformation about COVID-19.
Below the tweets, a user is prompted by an alert to "get the facts about mail-in ballots."
When a user clicks on the "get the facts about mail-in ballots" banner, it leads them to a Twitter event page titled "Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud" with a Twitter-written blurb explaining the context behind Trump's attacks on California and writing that "experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud."
Twitter then presents a "what you need to know" section right below, which almost immediately contradicts the previous statement right above it.
The next section says, citing unnamed "fact-checkers" that "there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud," which gives the impression there is no fraud whatsoever involving mail-in ballots.
To be clear, all voter fraud and absentee-ballot fraud, in particular, is exceedingly rare. But no matter how rare, it still exists. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation's own database of voter- and election-fraud cases, there have been 1,100 criminal convictions for all voter fraud and 143 criminal convictions for fraudulent use of absentee ballots over the past 20 years.
As MIT elections scholar Charles Stewart and National Vote At Home Institute CEO Amber McReynolds, two leading experts on voting by mail, said in an April op-ed, those figures come out to 7.1 cases per year nationwide and an average of three convictions per state in the past 20 years, accounting for just 0.00006% of all votes cast in that time.
But there's still a significant difference between saying that mail-in ballots are "very rarely linked to voter fraud" and saying there's "no evidence mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud." Twitter juxtaposing those two conflicting statements could ultimately cause more confusion than it helps readers find the real facts.
The second point in the fact-check is correct in noting that California has for years and will continue sending ballots only to registered, verified voters and not hand them out to anyone regardless of their registration or immigration status, as Trump claimed both in his tweets and in response to questions from reporters at a Tuesday press conference.
The Heritage Foundation's database has identified only two individuals, both unauthorized immigrants, convicted for ineligible voting in California, and one instance of a conviction for fraudulent use of absentee ballots in the state over the past 20 years.
In both of the ineligible-voting cases, the defendants used fraudulent birth certificates and Social Security cards under alternate identities to vote. One of the cases was of a man convicted on five counts of illegally voting in federal elections who testified in court that he supports Trump and has donated to Republicans.
As The Wall Street Journal reported, however, the third bullet point in the first version of Twitter's fact-check is slightly misleading in grouping together the three states of Utah, Oregon, and Nebraska as having similar vote-by-mail policies.
Oregon and Utah are among five states that, over the past several election cycles, have held their elections almost entirely by mail by sending every registered voter an absentee ballot.
While voters in Nebraska can request absentee ballots without a documented excuse and some counties in Nebraska do send every voter a ballot, the state has not similarly held its elections almost entirely by mail. In the 2018 midterm elections, for example, 94% of voters in Oregon cast ballots by mail compared to 82% in Utah and just 24% in Nebraska.
This year, Nebraska also joined several other states, including Georgia, Iowa, and Michigan, in sending every registered voter an absentee-ballot request form for the state's May 12 primary elections, leading to about 80% of voters casting ballots by mail during COVID-19 pandemic.
Since last night, however, Twitter corrected the third bullet point to instead say that "five states already vote entirely by mail," referring to Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii, and to correctly note that all states have "some form" of absentee voting.
The company said that Trump's tweets don't violate Twitter's official rules banning misinformation surrounding elections because they don't directly try to discourage people from voting, but do "contain misleading information about the voting process, specifically mail-in ballots" and the platform is "offering more context to the public."
Yet Twitter did not comment on Insider's inquiries about the misleading and somewhat contradictory information in its first fact-check, which aims to provide such "context," or how it plans to vet and verify the information it presents in its fact-checks of Trump's tweets in the future.
This instance makes it clear that keeping track of and correctly characterizing all the nuances and discrepancies in US election policy in a few digestible sentences is no easy task for a social-media platform, or anyone, to take on. Even while trying to correct serious misinformation about the integrity of absentee voting perpetrated by its most powerful user, Twitter risks causing additional confusion.