Media research and comms professor Dylan McLemore tweeted this on Tuesday night, and I think it was spot-on. “I know he has a few more hours,” McLemore tweeted, “but it feels like Donald Trump’s presidency ended when his Twitter account was taken away.”
As Joe Biden was set to be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, his predecessor – capable of dominating a media cycle like no other – had become largely silent.
I appeared on Al Jazeera English shortly after the insurrection to talk about Donald Trump’s social media ban, and noted that as president, he continued to possess one of the largest platforms of any person on earth. And yet, in the final weeks of his presidency, he really didn’t use it. Without the ability to tweet stream of consciousness from his phone, the president’s press shop basically called it a term.
I appreciate Brian Stelter fitting the observation into a very busy news day.
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A version of this post later appeared as an article for NewsLab, a project of the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media
After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.
In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.
Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:
Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]
FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]
WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]
Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]
President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]
BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]
Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]
This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)
*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.
Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage. Would fact checking change any of that?
Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage.
Donald Trump is distrusted by 57% of Americans, according to last weekend’s ABC/Washington Post poll. As with so much in this bizzaro-world election, that would be a damning figure if not for his opponent – 60% of those surveyed viewed Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy.
The moderator of the debate, NBC’s Lester Holt, meanwhile, is the stand in for “the media,” which is less trusted than either historically distrusted presidential candidate. Only 32% of Americans have at least a “fair amount” of trust in media, according to a Gallup poll released in mid-September.
So, it’s not surprising that we’re talking a lot about fact checking at the debates. The question is whether or not it’s the role of an agent of the widely distrusted media to call out either widely distrusted candidate on claims that are demonstrably false.
Plenty has been written about whether fact checking is the moderator’s role. The moderator of the third debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, has already said he doesn’t think it’s his job. Yesterday, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed with Wallace’s stance, in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying that live fact-checking was too much of a grey area.
I want to approach this from a slightly different angle – would a fact-checking moderator benefit anyone? And if so, who?
First, we need to look into the minds of voters, and under the hood of the polling data.
Hate and harassment on social media is driving users away. The difficulty of exposing hate, protecting victims, and limiting censorship.
Any corner of the Internet that facilitates anonymity is going to attract trolls. Twitter is no different. Recently, you might have noticed users placing their names in multiple (((parentheses))). It all traces back to anti-Semitic groups. Members place this parenthetical “echo” around Jewish people or businesses when attacking them on social media, giving compatriots an easy way to search for the target and join in on the harassment. There was even a now-removed Google Chrome plugin that made echoing easy, by cross-referencing text against a database of Jews. Here’s what it looked like in action:
Vox has an explainer if you want to read more about how the echo was used, as well as how it and the Chrome plugin were discovered by the rest of us.
Point is, once the echo was exposed, Twitter users, Jewish or not, began putting the echo around their names and other content. Not only a symbolic stand, it also undermined the beacon system being used by the hate groups.
Want to raise awareness about anti-Semitism, show solidarity with harassed Jews & mess with the Twitter Nazis? Put ((( ))) around your name.
The echo was defeated by the rest of the social media community. But that also involved Google taking down the plugin, which violated its terms forbidding “promotions of hate.” And it involved Twitter banning a number of users who “promote violence against or directly attack or threaten” other users.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the like all have different policies on dealing with harassment and hate speech, as well as the ways in which they curate content. They range from Google’s broad ban on hate code to Twitter’s fairly specific ban on direct, violent threats. A few weeks ago, all three agreed to adhere to the European Union’s “code of conduct on illegal online hate speech,” which requires resolution of hate speech reports within 24 hours, be it by removing or restricting the content or the user responsible.
However, speech laws are more restrictive in the E.U. than in the U.S., and vary by country. It’s the service provider’s job to figure out if a particular post fails to meet legal standards in those various jurisdictions. Much like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which YouTube already lets rightsholders wildly abuse, companies face penalties for failing to suppress content, but suffer no consequence for blocking everything in sight just to catch a small number of actual offenders.
It’s easy to see how the social media platforms could lean on the side of heavy censorship.