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Changing how retweets work, Twitter seeks to slow down election misinformation

Twitter announced a major set of changes to the way its platform would work Friday as the social network braces for the most contentious, uncertain and potentially high stakes election in modern U.S. history.

In what will likely be the most noticeable change, Twitter will try a new tactic to discourage users from retweeting posts without adding their own commentary. Starting on October 20 in a “global” change, the platform will prompt anyone who goes to retweet something to share a quote tweet instead. The change will stay in place through the “end of election week,” when Twitter will decide if the change needs to stick around for longer.

Gif via Twitter

“Though this adds some extra friction for those who simply want to Retweet, we hope it will encourage everyone to not only consider why they are amplifying a Tweet, but also increase the likelihood that people add their own thoughts, reactions and perspectives to the conversation,” Twitter said of the change, which some users may see on the Twitter for the web starting on Friday.

Twitter has been experimenting with changes that add friction to the platform in recent months. Last month, the company announced that it would roll out a test feature prompting users to click through a link before retweeting it to the platform at large. The change marks a major shift in thinking for social platforms, which grew aggressively by prioritizing engagement above all other measures.

The company also clarified its policy on election results, and now a candidate for office “may not claim an election win before it is authoritatively called.” Twitter will look to state election officials or projected results from at least two national news sources to make that determination.

Twitter stopped short of saying it will remove those posts, but said that It will add a misleading information label pointing users toward its hub for vetted election information to any content claiming premature victory. The company does plan to remove any tweets “meant to incite interference with the election process or with the implementation of election results” including ones that incite violence.

Next week, Twitter will also implement new restrictions on misleading tweets it labels, showing users a pop-up prompt linking to credible information when they go to view the tweet. Twitter applies these labels to tweets that spread misinformation about COVID-19, elections and voting, and anything that contains manipulated media, like deepfakes or otherwise misleading edited videos.

The company will also take additional measures against misleading tweets that get a label when they’re from a U.S. political figure, candidate or campaign. To see a tweet with one of its labels, a user will have to tap through a warning. Labeled tweets will have likes, normal retweets and replies disabled.

These new measures will also apply to labeled tweets from anyone with more than 100,000 followers or tweets that are getting viral traction. “We expect this will further reduce the visibility of misleading information, and will encourage people to reconsider if they want to amplify these Tweets,” Twitter said in its announcement.

Image via Twitter

Twitter will also turn off recommendations in the timeline in an effort to “slow down” how fast tweets can reach people from accounts they don’t follow. The company calls the decision a “worthwhile sacrifice to encourage more thoughtful and explicit amplification.” The company will also only allow trending content that comes with additional context to show up in the “for you” recommendation tab in an effort to slow the spread of misinformation.

The company acknowledges that it plays a “critical role” in protecting the U.S. election, adding that it had staffed up dedicated teams to monitoring the platform and “respond rapidly” on election night and in the potentially uncertain period of time until authoritative election results are clear.

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Trump is already breaking platform rules again with false claim that COVID-19 is ‘far less lethal’ than the flu

Facebook and Twitter took action against a post from President Trump Tuesday that claimed that COVID-19 is “far less lethal” than the flu. Trump made the tweet and posted the same message to Facebook just hours after arriving back at the White House following a multi-day stay at Walter Reed medical center, where the president was treated after testing positive for COVID-19.

Facebook took down Trump’s post outright Tuesday, stating that it “[removes] incorrect information about the severity of COVID-19, and have now removed this post.” Twitter hid the tweet behind a warning saying that it broke the platform’s rules about spreading misleading or harmful COVID-19 misinformation.

“We placed a public interest notice on this Tweet for violating our COVID-19 Misleading Information Policy by making misleading health claims about COVID-19,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

Taking down one of the president’s posts is rare but it wasn’t a first for Facebook. In August, Facebook removed a video Trump shared in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19. The clip originally aired on Fox News.

On twitter, Trump’s tweet will have “significantly limited” engagement, meaning that it can’t be retweeted without quoting, liked or replied to, but it will remain up because it’s in the public interest. By the time Twitter took action on the tweet it had more than 59,000 retweets and 186,000 likes.

Facebook and Twitter both created new policies to address the spread of pandemic-related misinformation earlier this year. In the pandemic’s earlier days, the false claim that COVID is comparable to the flu was a common refrain from Trump and his allies, who wished to downplay the severity of the virus.  But after months of the virus raging through communities around the U.S., the claim that COVID-19 is like the flu is an even more glaring lie.

While much remains not understood about the virus, it can follow an aggressive and unpredictable trajectory in patients, attacking vital organs beyond the lungs and leaving people who contracted it with long-lasting health effects that are not yet thoroughly studied or understood. Trump’s own physician has said the president “may not be out of the woods yet” in his own fight with the virus.

In recent months, the president’s social media falsehoods had shifted more toward lies about the safety of vote-by-mail, the system many Americans will rely on to cast votes as the pandemic rages on.

But less than a day out of a multi-day stay at the hospital where he was given supplemental oxygen and three experimental treatments, it’s clear Trump’s own diagnosis with the virus doesn’t mean he intends to treat the health threat that’s upended the economy and claimed more than 200,000 lives with any seriousness at all.

Instead, Trump is poised to continue waging a political war against platforms like Twitter and Facebook — if the results of the election give him the chance. Trump has already expressed interest in dismantling Section 230, a key legal provision that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content. He tweeted “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” Tuesday after Twitter and Facebook took action against his posts saying the flu is worse than COVID-19.

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Facebook gives more details about its efforts against hate speech before Myanmar’s general election

About three weeks ago, Facebook announced will increase its efforts against hate speech and misinformation in Myanmar before the country’s general election on November 8, 2020. Today, it gave some more details about what the company is doing to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation. This includes adding Burmese language warning screens to flag information rated false by third-party fact-checkers.

In November 2018, Facebook admitted it didn’t do enough to prevent its platform from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar.

This is an understatement, considering that Facebook has been accused by human rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, of enabling the spread of hate speech in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims, the target of a brutally violent ethnic cleansing campaign. A 2018 investigation by the New York Times found that members of the military in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, instigated genocide against Rohingya, and used Facebook, one of the country’s most widely-used online services, as a tool to conduct a “systematic campaign” of hate speech against the minority group.

In its announcement several weeks ago, Facebook said it will expand its misinformation policy and remove information intended to “lead to voter suppression or damage the integrity of the electoral process” by working with three fact-checking partners in Myanmar—BOOM, AFP Fact Check and Fact Crescendo. It also said it would flag potentially misleading images and apply a message forwarding limit it introduced in Sri Lanka in June 2019.

Facebook also shared that it in the second quarter of 2020, it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Myanmar that violated it Community Standards against hate speech, with 97.8% detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

But, as TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas noted, “without greater visibility into the content Facebook’s platform is amplifying, including country specific factors such as whether hate speech posting is increasing in Myanmar as the election gets closer, it’s not possible to understand what volume of hate speech is passing under the radar of Facebook’s detection systems and reaching local eyeballs.”

Facebook’s latest announcement, posted today on its News Room, doesn’t answer those questions. Instead, the company gave some more information about what its preparations for the Myanmar general election.

The company said it will use technology to identify “new words and phrases associated with hate speech” in the country, and either remove posts with those words or “reduce their distribution.”

It will also introduce Burmese language warning screens for misinformation identified as false by its third-party fact-checkers, make reliable information about the election and voting more visible, and promote “digital literacy training” in Myanmar through programs like an ongoing monthly television talk show called “Tea Talks” and introducing its social media analytics tool, CrowdTangle, to newsrooms.

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Twitter flags Republican leader’s video as ‘manipulated’ for altering disabled activist’s words

Twitter flagged an inflammatory video by House Republican Whip Steve Scalise on Sunday for altering footage of a conversation between progressive activist Ady Barkan and Joe Biden. The video is now labeled as “manipulated media” in a tweet from Scalise, though remains online.

The inflammatory video pulls in out-of-context quotes from a number of Democrats and activists, but appears to have crossed a line by altering Barkan’s words from a portion of the conversation about policing reform. Barkan, who has ALS, speaks with an assistive eye-tracking device.

“These are not my words. I have lost my ability to speak, but not my agency or my thoughts,” Barkan tweeted in response, adding “…You owe the entire disability community an apology.”

In the video excerpt, taken from a longer conversation about policing and social services, Barkan appears to say “Do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding for police?” In reality, Barkan interrupted Biden during the conversation to ask “Do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?”

In the video, Barkan’s altered sentence is followed by a dramatic black background stamped with the words “No police. Mob rule. Total chaos. Coming to a town near you?” Those ominous warnings are followed by a logo for Scalise’s reelection campaign.

The addition of the two words, falsely rendered in Barkan’s voice, don’t significantly change the meaning of his question, but the edit still crossed a line. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that the tweet violated the company’s policy for “synthetic and manipulated media,” though did not specify which part of the video broke the rules.

The synthetic and manipulated media policy states that Twitter “may label Tweets containing synthetic and manipulated media to help people understand their authenticity and to provide additional context.” In the policy, Twitter explains specifically that “new video frames, overdubbed audio” and other edits count as deceptive and significant manipulation.

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Twitter hides Trump tweet behind notice for potentially dissuading people from voting

Twitter flagged one of President Donald Trump’s tweets on Monday, placing it behind a notice that warns users it violates the platform’s rules against dissuading people from voting.

In the tweet, posted on Monday, Trump claimed mail drop boxes are a “voter security disaster” and also said they are “not COVID sanitized.” Twitter’s notice says that the tweet violates its rules about civic and election integrity, but it “determined it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.” Users can still retweet it with comment, but are nor prevented from liking, replying, or retweeting it alone.

Through its Twitter Safety account, the company gave more details, saying that the tweet had been flagged for “making misleading health claims that could potentially dissuade people from participation in voting.” It also cited a section from its Civic Integrity Policy, highlighting a line that forbids users from making “misleading claims about process procedures or techniques which could dissuade people from participating” in elections.

Mail-in ballots, which are expected to be used more widely by states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, have become a partisan issue leading up to the November presidential election. Despite what Trump said in his tweet, expert consensus is that mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are both secure. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states COVID-19 is spread mostly through close contact from person to person. Though it is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly eyes, the CDC says this is “not thought to be main way the virus spreads.”

After years of controversy over how the platform handled the president’s tweets that contained misleading, false, or incendiary statements, Twitter has recently begun taking a harder stance on Trump’s account. In May, Twitter applied fact-check labels about mail-in ballots to two of Trump’s tweets.

Days later, Trump signed an executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives internet companies legal protections that shield them from liability for user-created content while also giving them power to make moderation decisions. The executive order argued that platforms forfeit their rights to legal protection when they moderate content, as Twitter did when it applied fact-check labels to Trump’s tweets.

Though it is not clear if Trump’s executive order is legally enforceable, it may serve to intimidate some platforms. Twitter called the order a “reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law,” and its actions on Trump’s tweets today may indicate that the company does not see it as a threat.

TechCrunch has contacted the White House and Twitter for comment.

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Twitter locked the Trump campaign out of its account for sharing COVID-19 misinformation

Twitter took action against the official Trump campaign Twitter account Wednesday, freezing @TeamTrump’s ability to tweet until it removed a video in which the president made misleading claims about the coronavirus. In the video clip, taken from a Wednesday morning Fox News interview, President Trump makes the unfounded assertion that children are “almost immune” from COVID-19.

“If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” Trump said. “They don’t have a problem. They just don’t have a problem.”

While Trump’s main account @realDonaldTrump linked out to the @TeamTrump tweet in violation, it did not directly share it. In spite of some mistaken reports that Trump’s own account is locked, at this time his account had not been subject to the same enforcement action as the Trump campaign account, which appears to have regained its ability to tweet around 6PM PT.

“The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”

Facebook also took its own unprecedented action against President Trump’s account late Wednesday, removing the post for violating its rules against harmful false claims that any group is immune to the virus.

The president’s false claims were made in service of his belief that schools should reopen their classrooms in the fall. In June, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made similar unscientific claims, arguing that children are “stoppers of the disease.”

In reality, the relationship between children and the virus is not yet well understood. While young children seem less prone to severe cases of COVID-19, the extent to which they contract and spread the virus isn’t yet known. In a new report examining transmission rates at a Georgia youth camp, the CDC observed that “children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

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Facebook just took down a Trump post that claimed kids are immune to COVID-19

Facebook took down a video President Trump posted to his account Wednesday, citing its rules against false claims about the coronavirus. The decision to remove the video signals a new direction for Facebook, which has been taking incremental steps recently to distance itself from the perception that the company deliberately turns a blind eye to the president’s potentially harmful behavior.

The video in question was a clip from a Fox News segment from Wednesday morning in which the president makes the unsubstantiated claim that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19. While much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, children can contract COVID-19 and are believed to be able to spread it to others, even without symptoms.

“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” Facebook’s Liz Bourgeois said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Twitter also removed a link to the same video clip, which the official Trump Twitter account @TeamTrump shared earlier on Wednesday. Links to the tweet now point Twitter users to a message that the tweet violated Twitter’s rules and is no longer available.

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Twitter cracks down on QAnon conspiracy theory, banning 7,000 accounts

Twitter announced Tuesday that many accounts spreading the pervasive right-wing conspiracy theory known as QAnon would no longer be welcome on its platform.

Citing concerns about “offline harm,” the company explained that it would begin treating QAnon content on the platform differently, removing related topics from its trending pages and algorithmic recommendations and blocking any associated URLs. Twitter also said that it would permanently suspend any accounts tweeting about QAnon that have previously been suspended, coordinate harassment against individuals or amplify identical content across multiple accounts.

Twitter says the enforcement will go into effect this week and that the company would continue to provide transparency and additional context as it makes related platform policy choices going forward. According to a Twitter spokesperson, the company believes its action will affect 150,000 accounts and more than 7,000 QAnon-related accounts have already been removed for breaking the rules around platform manipulation, evading a ban and spam.

QAnon emerged in the Trump era and the conspiracy’s adherents generally fervently support the president, making frequent appearances at his rallies and other pro-Trump events. QAnon’s supporters believe that President Trump is waging a hidden battle against a secretive elite known as the Deep State. In their eyes, that secret battle produces many, many clues that they claim are encoded in messages sprinkled across anonymous online accounts and hinted at by the president himself.

QAnon is best known for its connection to Pizzagate, a baseless conspiracy that accused Hillary Clinton of running a sex trafficking ring out of a Washington D.C. pizza place. The conspiracy inspired an armed believer to show up to the pizza shop, where he fired a rifle inside the restaurant, though no one was injured.

While the conspiracy theory is elaborate, odd, and mostly incoherent, it’s been popping up in other mainstream places. Last week, Ed Mullins, the head of one of New York City’s most prominent police unions, spoke live on Fox News with a mug featuring the QAnon logo within clear view of the camera. In Oregon, a QAnon supporter won her primary to become the state’s Republican nominee for the Senate.

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Facebook boycott leaders ‘disappointed’ after meeting with Zuckerberg, Sandberg

What began as a relatively small effort by activist organizations to hold Facebook accountable for perceived policy failings has snowballed into a mass corporate backlash — and a rare moment of discomfort for a company that enjoys its status as one of tech’s untouchable giants.

As the #StopHateforProfit campaign continues to attract surprisingly mainstream corporations to its boycott of Facebook advertising, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the newly back-at-Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox sat down with the group on Tuesday. Other members of the policy team and one more member of Facebook’s product team were also present for the meeting, which lasted a little over an hour.

Following the conversation with Facebook’s uppermost leadership echelon, leaders from four of the organizations spearheading the boycott called the chat an unequivocal disappointment. “Today we saw little and heard just about nothing,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. Greenblatt also expressed disappointment that Facebook fails to apply “energy and urgency” to issues like hate and misinformation that it brings to scaling its massively successful online ad platform.

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson criticized Facebook for “expecting an A for attendance” for participating in the meeting. Free Press co-CEO Jessica J. González also expressed that she was “deeply disappointed” in the company. NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson dismissed the company’s efforts as well, accusing Facebook of being “more interested in dialogue than action.”

The #StopHateforProfit campaign calls for companies to suspend their advertising on Facebook and Instagram for the month of July, citing recent policy choices by the company, including the decision not to touch a post by President Trump threatening racial justice protesters with violence.

The initiative is led by a handful of civil rights groups and other organizations, including the ADL, Color of Change, Sleeping Giants, the NAACP and the tech company Mozilla. The effort attracted surprisingly widespread support, with companies from Coca-Cola and Starbucks to Ford and Verizon agreeing to temporarily suspend their Facebook and Instagram ad budgets, joining a handful of outdoor brands that signed onto the campaign in late June.

The campaign’s goals include a demand that Facebook hire a “C-suite level executive” with civil rights expertise, an audit and refunds for advertisers who unknowingly had their ads run on content later removed for violating the platform’s terms of service and a call for Facebook to identify and shut down both private and public groups centered around “white supremacy, militia, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation and climate denialism.”

The group also critiques Facebook’s incentive structure for content on its platform and how the company’s political relationships, like that with the Trump administration. “Facebook is a company of incredible resources,” the boycott’s organizers wrote. “We hope that they finally understand that society wants them to put more of those resources into doing the hard work of transforming the potential of the largest communication platform in human history into a force for good.”

While the group doesn’t believe that other tech platforms are blameless, it focused efforts on Facebook due to the company’s sheer scale and outsized impact on discourse both on and off the platform. “The size and the scope of it simply has no point of comparison,” Greenblatt said, citing the social network’s 2.6 billion users.

“We’re tired of the dialogue, because the stakes are so incredibly high for our communities,” González said, referring to the pandemic’s disproportionate negative health outcomes for people of color and the ongoing civil rights uprising following the killing of George Floyd. González also mentioned that Facebook profits from political ads “dehumanizing” brown and Black people in the U.S.

In the midst of renewed public scrutiny, Facebook announced last week that it would crack down on so-called “boogaloo” groups inciting anti-government violence, though boogaloo content not linked to violent threats may remain up on the platform. The announcement came the same day that a group of Democratic senators pressed the company on those groups — which it suggests to users via algorithms.

“We come together in the backdrop of George Floyd” Johnson said of the group’s campaign against Facebook, noting that communities are rightfully moving to hold companies to higher standards on issues of race and race-based hate.

“We are simply saying, keep society safe. Keep your employees safe. And help us protect this democracy,” Johnson said.

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Trump signs an executive order taking direct aim at social media companies

On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order targeting the legal shield that internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content. That law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is essential to large social platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the kind of companies the president has long accused, without evidence, of deliberately suppressing conservative views.

Trump was joined during the signing by Attorney General William Barr, who has previously expressed interest in stripping away or limiting the same legal protections for tech companies.

We previously examined a draft of the executive order that’s nearly identical to the just-released final version, embedded below. Among other things, the draft argued that platforms forfeit their rights to legal protection when they moderate content, as in the case of Twitter modifying the president’s tweet with a fact-checking disclaimer.

“The choices Twitter makes when it chooses to edit, blacklist, shadowban are editorial decisions, pure and simple,” Trump said during the signing. “In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform and they become an editor with a viewpoint. And I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook.”

Tech companies and internet rights advocates believe that interpretation of Section 230 inverts the original spirit of the act. They say Section 230 was designed to protect internet companies from being sued for the content they host while also empowering them to make moderation choices without being liable for those decisions.

Twitter itself called the order a “reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law.” Facebook also released a statement, asserting that the company “believe[s] in protecting freedom of expression on our services, while protecting our community from harmful content including content designed to stop voters from exercising their right to vote.”

Google also weighed in against the order. “We have clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint,” a Google spokesperson said. “Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences. Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”

While the idea of dismantling Section 230 does pose an existential threat to internet companies, it’s not clear that the White House will be able to actually legally enforce its threats. But even if the order doesn’t result in substantial repercussions for social media companies, it might serve to intimidate them from further enforcing platform policy decisions like ones that inspired the president to retaliate against Twitter this week.

On Tuesday, Twitter added warning labels to two tweets from the president that made false claims about vote-by-mail systems. The labels, which did not hide the tweets or even actually outright call them false, pointed users toward a fact-checking page. The move enraged the president, who lashed out at the company through tweets, specifically targeting Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity.

The executive order makes it clear that the president’s spat with Twitter inspired the action, though some of its language is likely recycled from an abandoned effort at a similar order last August.

“Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias,” the unusual order reads. “As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet.”

Civil rights groups and internet freedom watchdogs denounced the order Thursday, with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the co-creator of the law in Trump’s crosshairs, denouncing his actions as “plainly illegal.”

“As the co-author of Section 230, let me make this clear — there is nothing in the law about political neutrality,” Wyden said of the order.

“It does not say companies like Twitter are forced to carry misinformation about voting, especially from the president. Efforts to erode Section 230 will only make online content more likely to be false and dangerous.”

Whatever happens with Trump’s big move against social media companies, it’s likely to energize the president’s base and his allies in Congress and other corners of the government around the issue. And even if adding politically advantageous stipulations to Section 230 proves legally difficult or untenable for the White House, the threat may allow the president to wield new power over some of tech’s most powerful, often untouchable companies just the same.

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