Discourse

Twitter and Facebook: Fact checkers or arbiters of truth?

In the weeks leading up to November 3, the role of social platforms and their significant influence on Politics in America were in the national spotlight, and for good reason.
Leonardo Briceno
Leonardo Briceno The Post Millennial

When President Donald Trump began telling online audiences that he had won the presidency partway through election night, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter began running posts informing viewers that votes were still being counted.

Notices appeared on posts from both campaigns, denoting that the election remained inconclusive—with as many as seven states still in the balance.

"The winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election has not been projected," the tag read. "See the latest vote counts and know what to expect as the process continues."

Ben Collins, reporter for NBC News, retweeted the post.

In the weeks leading up to November 3, the role of social platforms and their significant influence on Politics in America were in the national spotlight, and for good reason. Where one tag on social media on election night may not appear like a means by which to sway an election, it is indicative of a larger issue at play on mediums like Facebook and Twitter: the arbitration of a nation’s political discourse.

As many as 48 Trump election ads were removed from Facebook for violating the platform's "voter interference policy" the week before the election, according to reporting from Business Insider. These Facebook posts, which came from Trump’s campaign page, encouraged viewers to submit their ballots ahead election night on November 3.

"Your vote has not been counted. This is the fight for our future. President Trump need you to take action, and vote. We need you to vote early," the post said.

When asked for comment, Facebook did not respond to Business Insider's inquiry; its not immediately clear what specific criteria the platform considered to be in violation of their policies.

Unlike Federal institutions which have guidelines laid out by legislative guidelines, platforms like Google, Twitter, Facebook, create their own user policies and, in turn, apply that policy to user content.  It's ultimately their decision what content is deemed appropriate and what isn't.

Not even the Department of Homeland Security gets to make its own rules.

When asked about a Trump claim to victory, Chad Wolf, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary, told the Wall Street Journal that Homeland Security would not play a role in arbitrating statements made on behalf of political candidates. That falls outside of the scope of their role.

"We're going to rely on local, state election officials to make sure their ballots are counted," Wolf said.

Social media platforms don't share such restrictions; they're not government entities and are exempt from constitutional limitations. Instead, many have internal user policy, like the ones seen at Facebook.

Twitter filters content through its "civic integrity policy." This is its list of criteria that prohibits political content that misinforms, intimidates, misleads outcomes, or is factually incorrect.

But in a political climate where a single platform could provide candidates with access to millions of viewers, these decisions about what viewers see in their feed and what they don't becomes inherently political. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in recent events surrounding the New York Post.

CEOs from Facebook, Google, and Twitter recently testified before congress for what many Republican proponents called a politically-motivated suppression of the nation’s largest tabloid service.

For weeks, the three platforms had cut off or prevented the dissemination of content from the New York Post surrounding allegations that Hunter Biden had used his father's influence as Vice-President of the United States to peddle influence internationally.

The allegations, per the platforms, were largely unconfirmed and as a result, were classified as misinformation. Twitter went as far as to completely lock the Post's account, only eventually unlocking the account two weeks before the election.

Concerns that platforms may be abusing their influence have sparked outrage. Ted Cruz, Senator from Texas, saw actions from Facebook and Twitter as a direct attempt to influence the outcome of the election.

"In the last two days we have seen big tech—we have seen Facebook and Twitter actively interfering in this election in a way that has no precedent in the history of our country," Cruz said.

If Twitter and Facebook see a responsibility to safeguard truth on their platforms, an implementation of that responsibility may run directly into conflict with a First-Amendment understanding of online forums. Tags about the completion of an election may not have ultimately swayed its results, but they very well could have, and but it says a lot about the rules around how a modern-day presidential election is run.

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