Many cheered this week when they saw that Twitter had added a warning label to two of President Donald Trump’s tweets. The tweets concerned the president’s allegation that an election in which most ballots would be cast by mail could easily be tainted by fraud. But followers of the @realDonaldTrump account also saw a link appended to them that read “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” which led them to a CNN article refuting the president’s claims.
Trump has often played fast and loose with the facts, and has used his bully pulpit on Twitter to attack his foes and set the national agenda by bypassing the filter of the news media and speaking directly to his 80.3 million followers—an audience that dwarfs that of even the largest publication or network. Trump’s detractors say the company didn’t go far enough and want him banned from its site.
The problem with the social-media giant moving a step closer to doing just that is that attempting to fact check political speech opens up a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences that will impact far more than the man in the White House and might do more to feed hate than to combat it.
The first of those unintended consequences was the unwanted scrutiny that was subsequently given to the Twitter account of Yoel Roth, head of Twitter’s Site Integrity team, which was, at least initially, widely assumed to be the person leading the effort to fact-check Trump.
As it turns out, Roth’s Twitter feed was as incendiary as that of Trump.
Screenshots of his reactions to the 2016 election results and subsequent presidential inauguration denounced Trump and his White House staff as “Nazis,” and poured abuse on states in “flyover” country that voted for him as racist. When White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway called out Roth for his extreme opinions about the administration, which he has continued to vent in the last three years, she and other pro-Trump figures were accused of bullying him. But as far as Trump’s defenders are concerned, Twitter was engaging in flagrant hypocrisy by attempting to label Trump’s opinions as false when it could easily do the same to controversial or disputed assertions by a host of other politicians, world leaders and, yes, high-ranking Twitter employees.
That Twitter chose to single out Trump’s opinions about mail-in ballots rather than a lot of the other things he tweets about was curious. In recent days, Trump has made some indefensible and truly offensive false charges about MSNBC host and former Congressman Joe Scarborough being responsible for the death of one of his staffers 20 years ago that was ruled an accident. The family of the victim has pleaded with the president to stop. Trump ought to delete his tweets on the matter.
By contrast, Trump’s opinions about defending the integrity of elections and mail-in ballots may be disputed, but they are about something that might conceivably happen and shouldn’t be labeled as false. More importantly, if the same standard would be applied to everything that is published on Twitter, it would only be links to cat videos and pictures of cute children that would escape fact-checking of one sort or another.
Does Twitter have the right to pick and choose what it examines? Not really.
Both Twitter and Facebook have taken on the character of public utilities. Twitter has 330 million and Facebook a staggering 2.6 billion users. And thanks to a little known clause in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that says that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” both Twitter and Facebook are treated by the law as online bulletin boards, rather than the moral equivalent of newspapers and magazines. That means that while conventional publications—like JNS—can be sued for libel if they publish false and defamatory material, the above companies are held harmless under the law for anything their myriad users might post.
That’s why Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has proposed amending the 1996 law to remove their immunity unless they can prove that the algorithms and their practices for removing allegedly offensive content are politically neutral.
Whatever you may think of Trump, the warnings attached to his tweets—and not those of his opponents who make assertions their critics can also claim to be false—have exploded Twitter’s claim of neutrality.
What follows next should be of great interest to those who care about the Jewish community and the fight against anti-Semitism. While some, like actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who have bashed big social media for not censuring Nazis and hate groups, may be encouraged by this move towards more aggressive monitoring of posts and tweets, this is a weapon that can just as easily be turned on others.
Those who are appalled by, say, the anti-Semitic posts of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan or those of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that call for Israel’s elimination would want them to be banned. But would Twitter’s clearly biased fact-checking team be just as inclined to ban Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or even the heads of Jewish groups who call out anti-Semitic hate in the Muslim and Arab worlds, which has been labeled by some as bigotry, even though those claims are objectively true?
The slippery slope here is one in which those who defend Jewish interests and wish to combat anti-Semitism are as likely to be targeted as hatemongers.
Twitter may think it can be objective when it comes to labeling what Roth described a few weeks ago during the introduction of the warning labels as “misleading information.” But by taking a side on what is essentially a political question in an election year, Twitter is exhibiting the sort of bias that should scare everyone who wants it to continue to be a free, if flawed, public-information highway.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.