A little more than 50 days before the 2020 US presidential election, it is all – predictably – hitting the fan. Foreign interference is, of course, a pervasive threat as well-known actors both seek to heighten social discord and literally hack campaigns. However, good old homemade deliberate misinformation is also a significant threat to the entire election process this year.
With the advent of social media – especially Facebook, Google, and Twitter – misinformation is spreading quickly. Facebook has already announced its (weak) plan to fight widespread lies, and this week Twitter and Google released their plans as well.
Twitter's existing policy prohibits users from posting content that contains "false claims about participation in citizen trials" or "content that could intimidate or suppress participation". In other words, at a very high level, you are not allowed to use Twitter to lie about votes or tell people not to vote.
False information can come from anywhere, and many of us have seen some – sometimes unintentionally – being shared online by our own friends and family. Unfortunately, one of the most common and well-known sources of false claims has been US President and 2020 candidate Donald Trump, and his favorite platform is Twitter.
Twitter began attaching fact-check labels to Trump's tweets in May when the president claimed that all mail-in polls are (not) inherently fraudulent. Twitter added a small label to the bottom of the tweets with a link that read, "Get the Facts on Mail-In Ballots."
However, this type of fact-checking isn't accurate or obvious, and Twitter seems to have recognized it.
"People who use our service have told us that non-specific, controversial information that could cause confusion about a choice should be presented with more context," Twitter wrote in a company blog post. So starting September 17, Twitter will provide much more context and "flag or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civil process".
The list of content that Twitter is now labeling or deleting includes:
1. False or misleading information that causes confusion about the laws and regulations of a citizens 'process or about the officials and institutions that conduct those citizens' processes.
2. Controversial claims that could undermine confidence in the process itself, e.g. unconfirmed information about election fraud, election manipulation, voting results or the confirmation of election results.
3. Misleading claims about the results or outcome of a citizens' process that require or could lead to disruption of the implementation of the results of the process, Claiming victory before the election results are confirmed leads to unlawful behavior to prevent a peaceful transfer of power or an orderly succession.
It then seems likely to be just a question of when, and not if, expanded politics will again put Twitter on a collision course with the president and other high-ranking administrative or conservative figures. But Twitter is very clear that the policy applies to everyone (even if some receive warnings and others are banned). "We will not allow our service to be abused in connection with civil processes, especially elections," the contribution concludes. "Any attempt to do this – domestically as well as domestically – will be accompanied by strict enforcement of our rules, which apply equally and sensibly to all."
Search for answers
Google's new policy is less about what people say and more about what people find. The company is fully aware that many of its search features, including auto-complete, can direct users to places they might not otherwise have gone. Therefore, it tries to reduce the amount of misinformation that may be available to you in a search.
Google will improve its fact-checking in search, Google News and Google Images, the company said in a blog post. To date, more than four billion fact checks have been performed in 2020, according to the company, more than in all of 2019.
However, not all users go to Google News and check out the helpful Fact Check and Full Coverage modules when looking for information. So Google also optimizes the search.
"We have improved our automated systems so that no predictions are shown when we find that the query may not result in reliable content," said Google, admitting that AI cannot intercept everything and that sometimes human enforcers have to help . They also make changes to election-related searches:
We will remove predictions that could be interpreted as claims for or against a candidate or political party. We will also remove predictions that could be interpreted as claims about participation in the election – such as statements about voting methods, requirements, or the status of voting sites – or the integrity or legitimacy of electoral processes, such as the security of the election. In practice, this means that predictions such as “You can vote by phone” and “You cannot vote by phone” or a prediction that says “Donate to a party or candidate” should not appear in Autocomplete.
Even so, anyone can search for these or other terms if they're willing to type in whole words instead of relying on auto-completion. And the reliability of the links everyone follows is just as great as ever.