On Nov. 2, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to rail against a United States Supreme Court decision allowing Pennsylvania election officials to accept mail-in ballots received several days after Election Day. Trump claimed, baselessly, that the decision could, “induce violence in the streets.”
Twitter slapped Trump’s tweet with a warning that the information it contained “is disputed and might be misleading” about the imminent election. Twitter also limited the tweet’s reach by axing the ability of other users to “like” or comment on it, and anyone choosing to share it received a pop-up carrying vetted information on mail-in voting:
The action taken by Twitter on Trump’s tweet was a sign that the free-wheeling days of 2016, when armies of Russian government-controlled social media bots and trolls, political personalities, and media outlets, amplified misinformation in a campaign to influence the U.S., were over.
The warning applied to Trump’s tweet contains a link to Twitter’s civic integrity policy which states in part:
You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process. In addition, we may label and reduce the visibility of Tweets containing false or misleading information about civic processes in order to provide additional context.
Despite these efforts, plenty of misinformation spread on social media on Election Day. For example, a troll impersonating a Pennsylvania poll worker created a hoax on Facebook-owned Instagram, claiming he had thrown out ballots for Trump. The post containing the false information was shared by various Trump supporters with large Twitter followings, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.
You know there is a gaping hole in our sociotechnical security, when a single post on instagram can cause such confusion. Thank you to those on the beat today! https://t.co/n3qPhVAy3Q
— Joan Donovan, PhD (@BostonJoan) November 3, 2020
Darren Linvill, an associate professor in communications at Clemson University who researches state-sponsored disinformation, told Snopes that yes, things are better in 2020 — but the bar was set pretty low in 2016.
“In 2016 the Russians were paying for Facebook ads with rubles,” Linvill told us by phone. “They were registering Twitter accounts with Russian phone numbers. [The platforms] were so blind in 2016.”
But Linvill cautioned against giving too much credit to the platforms, noting that in terms of recent, major take-downs of foreign disinformation networks, “We have the FBI to thank for that.” He added, “It’s a victory for everyone who’s working in this space.”
But now, Linvill said, there are more bad actors online than in 2016 — many of them domestic. As an example, Linvill pointed to an October 2020 Facebook take-down of a network of trolls hired by the right-wing political action committee Turning Point Action. The trolls created profiles using fake names and profile pictures, and they commented on posts from mainstream media organizations and public figures “to create the perception of widespread support of their narratives,” Facebook’s head of security, Nathaniel Gleicher, told Politico.
Linvill also pointed to the fact that Scott Atlas, an adviser to Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, sat for an interview with Russian state-controlled media network RT. Atlas apologized for allowing himself to be “taken advantage of,” claiming he didn’t know that RT was a registered as a foreign agent.
Come Election Day 2020, both Facebook and Twitter have mitigating measures which in and of themselves demonstrate that the 2020 election is an election like no other in recent history.
Trump’s Election Disinformation
Trump has spent weeks making unfounded statements undermining people’s trust in the process. Notably, he has baselessly and repeatedly claimed that mail-in ballots, which played a big roll in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, were vulnerable to widespread fraud.
Trump has also refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden wins. Public officials and authorities are preparing for the possibility of political violence resulting surrounding the election.
Additionally, Axios reported that Trump may further undermine the election process by prematurely declaring victory if early returns appear to favor him.
Social Networks’ Policies Mitigate Potential Unrest
Both Facebook and Twitter have rules against a candidate claiming victory before results are final. They also have measures in place for the potentially uncertain days immediately following the election and rules against posts encouraging political violence.
Twitter’s policy against premature election victory declarations reads:
People on Twitter, including candidates for office, may not claim an election win before it is authoritatively called. To determine the results of an election in the US, we require either an announcement from state election officials, or a public projection from at least two authoritative, national news outlets that make independent election calls. Tweets which include premature claims will be labeled and direct people to our official US election page.
Facebook’s policy states that the platform is prohibiting claims in ads that prematurely declare electoral victory and ads that, “Attempt to delegitimize the election because the result cannot be determined on the final day of voting and/or before ballots are lawfully counted.”
Additionally, Facebook stated:
Getting the final election results this year may take longer than previous elections due to the pandemic and more people voting by mail. So we’re preparing a range of policies and products to keep people informed and prevent the spread of misinformation.
For example, when polls close, we will run a notification at the top of Facebook and Instagram and apply labels to candidates’ posts directing people to the Voting Information Center for more information about the vote-counting process. But, if a candidate or party declares premature victory before a race is called by major media outlets, we will add more specific information in the notifications that counting is still in progress and no winner has been determined.
On Election Day, Facebook said posts promoting “poll watching” activities “when those calls use militarized language or suggest that the goal is to intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters” are also not permitted.
Once polls close, Facebook said it will keep users informed of the ballot counting process:
“If presidential results aren’t known for days or weeks, we will help people understand the ongoing process with notifications at the top of Facebook and Instagram, facts about voting from the Bipartisan Policy Center and curated news in News Feed and the VIC.”
Additionally, Facebook said it is blocking ads from foreign state-controlled media outlets.
Twitter and Facebook both said they prohibit posts inciting violence. Per Twitter:
“Tweets meant to incite interference with the election process or with the implementation of election results, such as through violent action, will be subject to removal. This covers all Congressional races and the Presidential Election.”
Linvill said that despite the platforms’ efforts, disinformation that doesn’t break the law or violate rules can still easily spread. RT and Sputnik, another Russian government-owned outlet, still spread disinformation online. And followers of the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory still thrive on the platforms, despite recent enforcement actions against it.
“The flip side [to the social media platforms’ efforts] is that there are a lot more bad actors than there used to be,” Linvill said. “In 2016 it was just the Russians and a few outliers. Now you’ve got Russian, Cuban, Chinese, a lot of Iranian [influencing efforts]. And, just a whole bunch of domestic stuff. We’re our biggest problem.”