OAKLAND, Calif. – For the past four years, President Donald Trump has enjoyed the special status of a world leader on Twitter and Facebook, even as he used his perch atop the social media pyramid to peddle misinformation and hurl abuse at his critics.
While regular users could have faced being suspended or even booted from the platforms, Trump's misleading proclamations and personal attacks have thus far only garnered warning labels.
But could his loose leash on the platforms be yanked on Jan. 20 when his successor, Joe Biden, is inaugurated?
Here are some questions and answers about what the companies have done — and not done — why Twitter’s response has been stronger than Facebook’s and what, if anything we might see from the platforms in the coming weeks and months, once their most high-profile user is no longer in the White House.
WHY ARE SO MANY OF TRUMP’S TWEETS LABELED?
Ever since he lost his reelection bid, Trump has been spreading falsehoods about purported election fraud and otherwise trying to delegitimize Biden’s win. For the most part, Twitter and Facebook have responded by adding what look like warning labels to his statements, gently guiding people to authoritative information.
But it’s not just Trump’s tweets. Twitter has labeled hundreds of thousands of posts since late October under its “civic integrity” policy, flagging disputed or potentially misleading posts about the election, the voting process and the results. The idea was to prevent voter suppression and premature declarations of victory — in other words, protect the democratic process in an extraordinary election year complicated by a pandemic that led to millions of people voting by mail for the first time.
On Twitter, more than 100 of Trump's tweets and retweets have been labeled under this policy since Election Day. For instance, one on Nov. 15 where he wrote “I WON THE ELECTION!" has a label below it that reads “Multiple sources called this election differently." Other false and misleading tweets about voter fraud are labeled with “This claim about election fraud is disputed." When clicked, users are taken to authoritative sources of information about election results and the prevalence of voter fraud, which is exceedingly rare.
Facebook has also put labels on many of Trump's post about election results. Most recently, they say “Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election.”
WHAT ARE FACEBOOK AND TWITTER DOING DIFFERENTLY?
Both companies have been more aggressive about labeling Trump's statements about election fraud and false claims of victory than they have been with other matters of misinformation during his presidency. But Twitter has done more to limit their spread, by placing them behind warning labels and applying brakes in other ways before people can spread them.
Many of Facebook's labels, which during the election it placed on statements and images about voting posted by all of its U.S. users, could be removed just by clicking on an “X.” Both companies changed how they labeled Trump's claims of victory after multiple news organizations, including The Associated Press, called the race for Biden. Twitter now says “Multiple sources called this election differently," while Facebook names Biden as the winner. It's still possible to share or retweet the labeled posts on both platforms, though pop-ups try to get users to stop and think before doing so.
DO THE LABELS WORK?
By some measures — public relations, for sure — social media companies fared better in 2020 than they did in 2016 when it comes to protecting the integrity of the U.S. election. But critics say the labels alone often appear to do little more than provide cover for the social media platforms, giving only the appearance that they're working to safeguard against misinformation.
If the platforms continue to allow Trump and others to spread misinformation with no repercussions other than generic labels, even labeling every single post won't do much. In fact, if every post is labeled, the labels will quickly lose whatever impact they have.
Of course, both companies have done more than label posts. They have encouraged voting, pushed authoritative information and watched out for foreign and domestic interference efforts. But the warnings have been the most visible effort: easy to see, easy to point to and, arguably, easy to ignore.
The social networks' actions were a step in the right direction, but not that effective, said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor at Syracuse University and social media expert.
“Each platform has a different risk profile," Grygiel said. In Twitter's case, the risk comes from being a real-time platform people go to for immediate news. This means a label applied to a tweet just 15 minutes after it is sent is already too late. Facebook is less immediate, but the risk comes with spread. If a post is labeled but can continue to spread, it's not enough.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN ONCE BIDEN IS INAUGURATED?
Trump will return to being a private citizen, and at least on paper be subject to the platforms' official rules, like any other user. Twitter's rules exempt “world leaders" from some of its rules, such as those barring glorification of violence or encouraging harassment. That means that even if they violate the company's rules, their tweets can stay up behind a warning label (there are some exceptions that are prohibited even for world leaders, such as promoting terrorism or directly threatening someone with violence.)
On Jan. 20, after Biden is inaugurated, Trump will lose that world leader status.
On Facebook, the big change will be that Trump's posts will be eligible for fact checks by third-party fact-checkers.
Both Twitter and Facebook plan to transfer official government accounts to Biden and his team on Inauguration Day. This includes @POTUS and @WhiteHouse on Twitter and the White House and other accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
COULD TRUMP BE KICKED OFF THE PLATFORMS?
It will be easier once he is again considered a private citizen, but still unlikely. Notably, all of the fact checks and all of the labels disputing his claims don't count against him when it comes to his standing on either Facebook or Twitter. To face repercussions such as suspension or permanent removal, he'd have to violate the companies' rules. This might include targeted harassment or racist threats, for instance. Posting misinformation, unless it's extremely specific about COVID-19 or the voting process, doesn't count.