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Twitter blocked flagged Trump election tweets, but they still spread


Twitter blocked and flagged some allegations by Donald Trump of electoral fraud in the run-up to and after the 2020 presidential election.

The tweets spread on and off Twitter anyway.

That’s according to a new study by New York University researchers, published Tuesday in Harvard Kennedy’s School Misinformation Review and shared exclusively with USA TODAY.

The study raises new questions about the ability of social media companies to halt the flood of falsehoods on mainstream social media platforms during election cycles.

NYU researchers say Trump tweets with fact check labels are more common on Twitter than those without. And when Twitter blocked interaction with the former president’s tweets, they jumped to Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit, where they were more popular than tweets that Twitter flagged or not flagged at all.

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It’s not clear whether Twitter intervened on social media posts that were more likely to spread, or whether it was the intervention itself that gave the tweets a boost, the researchers said.

But they say their study underscores how harmful misinformation can leap from platform to platform when social media companies are poorly coordinated to contain its spread.

“Misinformation stopped on one platform doesn’t keep it on another,” said Megan Brown, research engineer at NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

Blocked on Twitter, Trump’s tweets surfaced on Facebook in the form of links, quotes and screenshots, where they achieved an average engagement of more than 300,000, said Zeve Sanderson, executive director of the NYU center.

This phenomenon shows that “political actors looking to advance a narrative online are not limited to working on a single platform,” said Joshua Tucker, co-director of the center.

“We’re in a world where people trying to control information environments and trying to advance political information environments are in a multi-platform world,” said Tucker. “At the moment we only have to deal with content on platform for platform.”

In a statement, Twitter said it took a number of steps to limit exposure to tweets that violated its rules.

“When the polls reached record highs, it was critical that we take quick enforcement action on misleading content that could contribute to offline harm,” the company said.

From October 27 through November 11, Twitter labeled around 300,000 tweets as controversial or potentially misleading and saw an estimated 29 percent decrease in quote tweets.

“We continue to research, question, and modify features that might encourage or encourage behavior on Twitter that could adversely affect the health of online conversation or cause offline harm,” the company said.

Twitter’s most significant intervention was the permanent ban on Trump in the final days of his presidency following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, a move that raised sensitive issues of freedom of expression and social media censorship.

At the time, Trump had 88.7 million followers who were retweeting him at an amazing rate, giving him near-unprecedented power to shape the national conversation.

After his supporters stormed the Capitol to prevent Congress from confirming Joe Biden’s presidential victory, Trump banned all three of the country’s top social media platforms – Facebook, Google’s YouTube and Twitter – over concerns that he would lead to more violence instigate.

YouTube announced that it would lift the ban as soon as the “risk of violence” decreases. In June, Facebook said Trump would not regain access to his accounts until 2023 at the earliest. Even if Trump runs for president and wins in 2024, Twitter said it won’t reinstate him.

Trump attacked social media companies for flagging, restricting or removing his posts that spread falsehoods about the outcome of the presidential election.

In July, Trump filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Google, and Twitter and their CEOs, alleging the companies violated his Amendment One rights.

As a backlash from conservatives, dozens of states are considering laws targeting how social media platforms regulate language. A bill passed in Florida but was temporarily blocked by a federal judge.

Another in Texas had the votes he needed in a special session of the Republican-controlled legislature, but was pending after the Democrats left the state for Washington to oppose the GOP’s efforts to overhaul the state’s electoral system to protest.

NYU researchers say they focused on Trump’s tweets “because there is evidence that he acted as a central vector for spreading misinformation about electoral relationships.”

They examined tweets from November 1, 2020 to January 8, 2021 flagged by Twitter.

Blocking engagement with Trump’s tweets limited their spread on Twitter, but not elsewhere, researchers found. The tweets were posted more frequently and were more popular on other social media platforms.

When Twitter tagged Trump’s tweets with a warning label, they were more popular than his unlabeled tweets, researchers said.

The result does not necessarily mean that warnings were ineffective or had the “Streisand Effect” if an attempt to hide or remove information brought them even more attention, Sanderson said. It may be that the types of tweets that Twitter flagged were also the types that were more likely to spread.

“Going forward, especially with the ongoing pandemic and the upcoming mid-term 2022, it will be very important for the platforms to coordinate where possible to stop the spread of misinformation,” said Brown.


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