May 27, 2020

Twitter fact-checks Trump's tweets.

Twitter fact-checks Trump's tweets.

Plus, a follow-up question about mail-in ballots.

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Today’s read: 9 minutes.

Twitter cracks down on Trump’s tweets, a follow-up about mail-in ballots and a very anxious America.

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Reader feedback.

Aidan from Auckland, New Zealand wrote in to push back on this line in Monday’s newsletter: “Quantitatively, again, Trump was holding a fairly normal number of press conferences and had been pretty accessible to White House scrums before the pandemic.” Aidan accurately noted that the White House went nearly a year without a press secretary briefing.

I should have been more clear about not conflating press secretary briefings with Trump’s scrums in front of the White House press corps. It’s true that the Trump administration, after Sarah Sanders left, went nearly a year without a formal White House press briefing — which was unprecedented.

Tim from San Francisco wrote in about mail-in ballots. He is the president of the California Association of Voting Officials, and thus an “expert” of sorts on the issue. Tim explained that everything about voting security and integrity has to do with “chain of custody and the ability to answer the question, ‘How do you know?’”

“Mail-in voting, in my view, complicates an already difficult process to secure the chain of custody of the ballot,” Tim wrote to me. “That being said, I'm an advocate for increasing the participation of the voter, and mail-in balloting certainly accomplishes that goal.” Tim wrote me a pretty interesting email about how voting tabulation works and why we need to make the software in our voting machines public for scrutiny. I’ve put the entire email, unedited, in a Google doc here if you want to read it.

What D.C. is talking about.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, Twitter added a fact-check to a presidential tweet. The notice came in the form of a “Get the facts” link placed beneath two of Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting. You can see an example here (red circle mine):

If you click that link, it takes you to a Twitter page of news articles fact-checking Trump’s claim. There is a “What you need to know” section that includes lines like “Trump falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to a ‘Rigged Election.’ However, fact-checkers say there is no evidence that mail-in ballots are linked to voter fraud.”

The decision came after a policy update earlier this month when Twitter decided it would apply “fact-checking labels” to coronavirus misinformation, or other disputed issues, and this was the first time the company applied a label to a non-COVID-19 story.

Trump responded to the fact-check by claiming Twitter was “stifling free speech” and said it was now “interfering in the 2020 presidential election.” He also said that “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative ideas. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

Tangle covered mail-in ballots yesterday, so if you read that issue you have a more balanced and well-rounded view of it than most Americans. I’m also writing about it in today’s reader question section. So, I will be focusing mainly on the conversation around censorship, Twitter, and the decision to fact-check the president.

What the left is saying.

The left has repeatedly called for Twitter to take action against Trump’s tweets, and this week those calls hit a fever pitch. However, much of the push came due to Trump’s repeated insinuations that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had murdered a former staffer. The woman’s widower wrote a moving letter to Twitter asking them to take the tweets down, and the left (and many on the right) supported him. But Twitter said it would leave the tweets up.

Instead, the company fact-checked the mail-in ballot tweets, something pretty much everyone on the left supported, too. Liberals have complained for years that Twitter allows world leaders and public figures to spread misinformation “virtually unchecked,” as The Washington Post put it, sometimes to a dangerous degree.

Responding to Trump’s claim that he was being “censored,” many on the left noted that Twitter is a private company and has the right to remove or label content as it sees fit. The company has explicit policies on bullying, misinformation and harassment that many on the left say Trump repeatedly violates with no punishment.

"The fact that Twitter felt the need to take this action suggests that there is a point at which the preservation of democracy in their view overshadows the importance of remaining non-partisan,” Joshua Pasek, a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, told WaPo.

What the right is saying.

There was a nearly unified front against Trump for his tweets about Joe Scarborough and the former staffer. While his most staunch supporters remained quiet, editorials in The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Washington Examiner and National Review all blasted Trump for the indecency of dragging a dead woman’s family into his political dispute.

But there is far more pushback on regulating the mail-in ballot tweets. The Wall Street Journal noted that “Twitter’s fact check of Mr. Trump’s tweet appeared to contain its own misleading statement,” conflating automatic all-mail voting with absentee ballots however, stating that “mail-in ballots are already used in some states, including Oregon, Utah and Nebraska.” That statement appears to conflate automatic all-mail voting with absentee ballots in Nebraska.

Fox News also reported that Yoel Roth, whose LinkedIn page says he is in charge of “developing and enforcing Twitter’s rules,” has a history of derisive tweets about Trump. One tweet refers to Trump and his team as “ACTUAL NAZIS.” Another mocks Trump supporters by saying "we fly over those states that voted for a racist tangerine for a reason,” and another called Sen. Mitch McConnell a “personality-free bag of farts.”

These tweets immediately called into question whether Twitter’s leadership should be trusted to regulate the president’s tweets as misleading or misinformation.

My take.

First, I want to address the least nuanced claims that are out there. Twitter is not “stifling free speech” or “violating the first amendment.” Anyone who says as much (including the president) is either woefully ignorant about the constitution or intentionally trying to make you angry. Twitter is a private company. If it wanted to remove the president’s account, it would have the right to do so (of course, I would never support such a move).

Think about it this way: if you walk into a restaurant and scream at the top of your lungs about how much the food sucks, the restaurant owner can remove you. You don’t get to shout “first amendment!” and stay there — it’s not your business, it’s not your property, you surrender some of your rights when you enter. The same is true of Twitter. The only thing you or I really get to decide about Twitter is whether we want to use it or not.

Second, even if Twitter wasn’t a private company, slapping a label on something to “get the facts” is not “censorship.” The president saying one thing, the fact-checkers saying it’s false, then linking people to a site to learn more about the tweet — even if you’re curating your own sources — is not “stifling” free speech. It’s encouraging it. It’s basically the model for Tangle. “Censorship,” real censorship, is limiting the ability of people to learn more about a topic.

And you know what else is real censorship? Being the federal government or the president and threatening to “strongly regulate” or “close” a company because you don’t like something they did. That’s censorship. That’s what people should be worried about, and the free speech brigade should be blasting the president — not Twitter — for repeatedly trying to leverage his powers against privately owned businesses.

Is Twitter handling this well? No. The tweets from Roth are embarrassing and if I were his boss I’d remove him from the enforcement team. WSJ is right that the Twitter fact-check had a mistake, albeit minor, which totally undermines what it is trying to do. It also would have been wise to include links to fact-checks of Trump from some right-leaning news sources, which do exist. And, again, it would have been far more impactful — and widely supported — to remove the president’s disgusting tweets about Joe Scarborough than it was to do this.

It’s also true that tech companies like Twitter seem to be run and managed predominantly by liberals, and that sometimes those liberal biases play out in their policies. I’m also skeptical, naturally, of any platform trying to regulate what I say on its feed. But conservatives claiming that Twitter or Facebook or YouTube have hurt the president — when those companies propelled him to victory in 2016, in part by disseminating obvious misinformation — are intentionally ignoring how beneficial the platforms have been for Trump’s agenda.

There is an election coming. It matters if the president is telling millions of people something that isn’t true or is misleading about how to vote or whether our system will work. Twitter is right to contextualize those tweets, even if they were ham-handed in doing it, and even though they should have been more focused on removing the president’s conspiracy-mongering about a young woman’s death.

Quick hits.

  1. Republican lawmakers are going to court to try to stop rule changes that allow proxy votes in Congress. House Democrats worked to pass a new rule that allows lawmakers to designate a representative to cast a vote on his or her behalf, and now Republicans are challenging the change in court.
  2. Bovada oddsmakers have California Senator Kamala Harris as the favorite to be Joe Biden’s pick for Vice President. Harris and Biden had some of the testiest exchanges of the Democratic primary, but bettors see them as the most likely pair headed into November.
  3. Marchers hit the streets last night in Minneapolis, where George Floyd, 47, died in police custody. Video of his death, in which Floyd tells officers he can’t breathe, led to the firing of all four police officers involved in the arrest. Police arrested him on suspicion of passing a fake $20 bill at a convenience store.
  4. President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden are both trying to tie themselves to the SpaceX launch in Florida today. Trump is headed to Florida to watch the launch in person and Biden is going to be on a call with NASA and former Florida senator Bill Nelson. Space launches are great politics and good for U.S. optimism (when they go well). The launch is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. EST.
  5. Marco Rubio, who stepped in as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee while Sen. Richard Burr is investigated for his stock transactions, is focusing on Russia — not Obama. Rubio seems to be resisting Trump’s push for a focus on the former president, instead focusing on the possibility of Russian interference in 2020 a priority.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: reader questions are one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: On the subject of mail-in balloting, I've been reading reports claiming that millions of ballots were lost or unaccounted for over the course of the past four election cycles. As with any of these subjects, there are outlets which are reporting this as factual and others refuting the claims. Have you seen and/or looked into this angle at all? I would love to hear an unbiased opinion on this.

— Mark, Carver, MA

Tangle: When I saw this question, I immediately regretted not addressing it yesterday’s newsletter. I actually saw this story popping up in a few different places and, like most things related to voter fraud, saw a lot of the nuance and details being ignored and cherry-picked.

This story started in April, when a conservative legal group reported one in five mail ballots issued between 2012 and 2018, totaling 28.3 million, were not returned by voters and went “missing.” Trump shared the story on May 1st with a tweet that said “Don’t allow RIGGED ELECTIONS.” The group, the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), regularly sues state and local election officials to force them to purge voters from registration rolls.

The group is led by J. Christian Adams, who worked at the Justice Department and was a member of the Trump administration’s short-lived “commission on election integrity.”

One of PILF’s central claims in their report was that one million ballots sent out to voters in the 2018 midterms were returned as undeliverable. That would mean there was a 91% increase in undeliverable ballots in 2018, a sign that voter rolls were full of duplicate voters, deceased voters, or voters who had moved out of the state. The report led to stories like this one on titled “28 Million Mail-In Ballots Went Missing in Last Four Elections.”

But there were some major problems with the report.

For one, ProPublica investigated the claim that one million ballots were returned as undeliverable in 2018 and found that the organization had doubled the government numbers. They sent the data to PILF, and the organization corrected its figure. It turns out the number of undeliverable mail ballots dropped between 2016 to 2018, as opposed to undergoing a 91% increase. This makes me extremely skeptical of PILF’s work.

Second, characterizing the ballots as “missing” is a stretch. It is true that millions of ballots were sent out and not returned. But that doesn’t make them “missing.” Adams said the 28 million unreturned ballots “represent 28 million opportunities for someone to cheat.” Yet, we know where most of those ballots are.

Twelve million of them were mailed by election officials in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, which, by law, send mail-in ballots to every registered voter. 30% of those, in every election, go unreturned. That’s not because they were missing or obtained by nefarious actors; it’s because the voters either voted in person, didn’t vote at all or simply threw them out, like most of us do when we receive mail from the government.

“Election officials ‘know’ what happened to those ballots,” Paul Gronke, the director of the Early Voting Information Center, told ProPublica. “They were received by eligible citizens and not filled out. Where are they now? Most likely, in landfills.”

The crux of PILF’s argument is not that voter fraud is happening or even that these ballots are missing, despite claiming as much. In response to the follow-up reporting, a PILF spokesperson admitted their report had serious errors but defended the conclusions: “Election officials send these ballots out in the mail, and for them to say ‘I have no idea what happened after that’ speaks more to the investments they haven’t made to track them.”

Again, we do know what happens to most of them. They get thrown out or people don’t vote. PILF’s central concern seems to be that we already have millions of ballots in the trash or out in the ether and that by sending millions more (by expanding mail-in voting in states) we’ll be creating opportunities for cheating and vulnerability. That’s a perfectly fine argument, and it’s something that needs to be figured out before November. But it’s very different from the conclusions that the president or his supporters are making.

Voter fraud is very rare, but it does happen. Absentee ballots were used in North Carolina’s 9th district to commit voter fraud in 2018. That kind of fraud could be easier to pull off with the expansion of mail-in ballots, but it’s still super rare — and the people involved in the North Carolina scheme were caught and prosecuted.

In the end, RealClearPolitics ran a follow-up article titled “There Were NOT 28 Million 'Missing' Mail-In Ballots.” Snopes rated the story as a “mixture” of true and false, noting “Some 28 million ballots sent out to voters over the course of four elections from 2012 to 2018 were either returned as undeliverable nor returned by voters,” but added that “the 28 million figure primarily represents uncast (rather than "missing") ballots and is not indicative of widespread voter fraud (nor necessarily indicative of the potential for such).” The president never corrected his tweet, though.

A story that matters.

One-third of all Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to Census Bureau data. It’s the most definitive and alarming sign yet of the psychological toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on the U.S. When asked questions typically used to screen patients for mental health issues, 24% showed signs of major depressive disorder and 30% showed signs of generalized anxiety disorder. On one question about depressed mood, the percentage of Americans reporting such symptoms doubled the results from a 2014 survey. One million households were contacted and more than 42,000 responded to the survey. Click.


  • 1 in 5. The number of teachers who say they are unlikely to go back to school even if their classrooms reopen in the fall.
  • 44-41. Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden in Utah, according to a new poll.
  • 44-27. Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in Utah.
  • 11%. The percentage of Democrats who said they support the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus.
  • 42%. The percentage of Republicans who said they support using hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus.
  • 38%. The percentage of voters who are “extremely enthusiastic” about voting in the November election.
  • 24%. The percentage of registered voters who said they are somewhat or very unlikely to get a coronavirus vaccine once it’s developed.

Have a nice day.

In Berlin, Germany, houses of worship have reopened under strict social distancing guidelines. The regulations mean that typical places of worship can no longer fit their entire congregations for services. Specifically, one mosque in Berlin was unable to handle the rush of worshippers during the end of Ramadan. As a remedy to the situation, a nearby church invited the congregants to use their place of worship to pray. “It is a great sign and it brings joy in Ramadan and joy amid this crisis,” Mohamed Taha Sabry, the mosque's imam, said. “This pandemic has made us a community. Crises bring people together.” Click.

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