Tweet first, think later: Twitter can’t keep up with Trump and online disinformation

Op-eds Opinions

Flagging disputed content isn’t enough without user vigilance

trump twitter disinformation graphic
Graphic by Kate Korte, with screen captures from Trump’s twitter.

After a tense week of waiting for the final ballots to be counted, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the U.S. election on Nov. 7. Yet as vote totals began to lean towards Biden, Donald Trump took to Twitter to vent his frustration, without regard for the democratic process. 

Twitter swiftly placed warning labels on Trump’s most controversial posts, hiding or flagging over 30 tweets in three days. But with time, the lies spread through retweets and quote tweets — adding fuel to an already heated U.S. election.

Twitter has become a staple platform for political discourse, where candidates can interact directly with their voters while easily sharing and promoting their agenda. Yet with increased reach and disinformation on the rise, the social media site also inherits more responsibility to keep facts at the forefront. The fact that Twitter implemented a Civic Integrity Policy specifically designed to limit the amplification of misleading and malicious content leading up to the U.S. election is a testament to this responsibility. 

Unfortunately, social media is riddled with disinformation. Traditional media often subscribes to guidelines of accuracy, fairness, and accountability in order to inform the public. Social media has the orderliness of the Wild West — each platform has its own set of rules, and truth matters little as long as the tale is great. 

It’s easy to understand why an egoistic and populist leader like Trump would use social media so rampantly. Twitter allows him to instantly reach a large audience, doing so without questions from reporters or alternative perspectives. 240 characters is seldom enough to share the full story, and retweets are often reflexive rather than reflective. Meanwhile, Twitter, a corporation with its own motives, is stuck arbitrating what is true and false. This is no easy task with 5 787 new tweets being sent worldwide every second.

During Trump’s 17-month candidacy campaign for the 2016 election, the Trump Twitter Archive counted 7 795 tweets, an average of 15 tweets per day. The daily dose dropped to less than 10 tweets per day for the first two years of his presidency, but rose again to more than 30 tweets per day early this year. On June 5, as the country roiled in protests following George Floyd’s death, Trump surpassed his own record by tweeting 200 times in a single day. He managed to send 74 tweets in one hour. In 2020 so far, Trump has tweeted over 11 000 times.

Trump, and his Twitter, are symptomatic of much bigger issues with our current media landscape. Right-wing news sources have capitalized on populist click-bait that barely resembles accurate content, let alone a balanced perspective. QAnon, a movement based on conspiracies that resembles an online religion in some ways, started in anonymous chat rooms but quickly grew online. Disinformation often emanates from online chat platforms and other corners of the web, before getting onto social media and being amplified further. In the long term, Trump’s election loss is a small win for truth in a massive war. 

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It is a battle in which every social media user has a role to play. Through our likes and retweets, we give information credibility. We choose what the algorithm learns is important. With 330 million Twitter users, that can add up to a lot of influence.

In Georgia, Stacie Abrams mobilized voters in communities through targeted Twitter threads and hashtags. In the Navajo nation, Indigenous peoples did the same. Black Lives Matter LA directly engaged thousands of voters. BIPOC communities changed the game — and the work of these activists is not credited enough. Through social media and in-person movements, their work helped win Biden the election. This activism was sometimes done through gritted teeth. Many don’t necessarily support all of Biden’s platform points, and their broader work against racial inequality in America remains ongoing. 

The effectiveness of Twitter’s labels in slowing the spread of disinformation remains to be seen. If anything, the labels seemed to attract more attention to Trump’s account. From Nov. 4-6, Trump gained one million followers. On average, he typically gains 1.6 million per month. 

Whereas other presidents tend to drift away after their terms and write a memoir in a cottage, Trump is likely to remain publicly vocal. Although he may have lost the election, through the continued growth of his follower base, Trump will continue to essentially have his own media site through his Twitter. 

The tweets will continue, but their influence and ability to affect politics largely depends on what users choose to amplify. The U.S. election has shown that Twitter and hashtags can channel a powerful movement when used with thoughtful consideration. When we focus our energy on evidence-based activism and credible sources, we embolden amazing work that is widely going unseen. It is users, not warning labels from Twitter, that restrain disinformation.