The country’s largest social networks are bracing for confusion among their millions of users and a potential torrent of misinformation in the days to come after President Donald Trump falsely claimed victory over former Vice President Joe Biden despite the many votes yet to be counted.
Trump’s premature announcement, during a White House appearance shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday, drew cheers from his supporters in the room. But it added to worries that his words would sow doubts on the evolving vote tallies and set the stage for protracted legal battles — tensions that will surely echo online.
"We will win this and, as far as I’m concerned, we already have won," Trump said at the White House, falsely declaring that he had clinched states where millions of votes cast on or before Election Day had not yet been counted. He also vowed to go to the Supreme Court, baselessly calling the election a "fraud on the American public."
Silicon Valley saw this coming: Premature declarations of victory are one of the dangers that social media companies have been bracing for in recent weeks, after months of warnings from tech executives and misinformation experts that online incendiaries could spread lies and undermine the electoral process. Facebook, Twitter and Google have adapted their election-response playbooks as a result, but they’re nevertheless stuck navigating a political minefield for the foreseeable future.
They’ll be on alert for foreign or domestic misinformation that exploits the moment of uncertainty, as well as hostile rhetoric from far-right groups that were agitated even before the election. And it could force the companies to challenge the narratives of a president who has repeatedly claimed Silicon Valley is biased against him and his party — worsening the risks that the Trump administration will sharpen its policy attacks on the tech giants.
Earlier Wednesday morning, Twitter and Facebook placed warning labels on a pair of Trump’s posts on the status of the election, saying he had violated policies against election misinformation and inaccurate claims of victory. The companies had been tracking and labeling misinformation throughout Election Day, including some involving isolated incidents in Pennsylvania that the Trump campaign and its supported latched onto to cast doubt on results.
Key context: Social media companies are desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2016 presidential campaign, during which Russian-backed operatives manipulated their platforms to exacerbate political discord in the U.S. Ever since, Facebook, Twitter and Google have been stuck in an increasingly partisan fight over how to stop misinformation, as many Democrats demand, without angering Republicans by stifling online speech.
Trump has raised the stakes by casting doubt on the election’s integrity in recent months. He has repeatedly made false claims about mail-in votes being fraudulent and accused Democrats of attempting to steal the election. More recently, Trump insisted that a winner be named on election night despite the fact that ballots always continue to be counted for days or weeks after Election Day.
“It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on Nov. 3, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate, and I don’t believe that’s by our laws,” Trump told reporters last week.
How the tech companies changed their strategies: Last month, Twitter amended its policies to prohibit declaring a winner until election authorities call a race or two national media outlets release independent projections. The company said it would label such posts with a link to credible election results.
Google-owned YouTube said it would add information panels to videos that prematurely declare victory, noting that the results are not yet final. If those videos also encourage interference in the election or mislead viewers about voting, it will be removed in accordance with the site’s guidelines, the company said.
Facebook said it would label unfounded claims of victory from presidential candidates with a message that votes are still being counted. And in its Voter Information Center, the company said it would show reliable, up-to-date results of ongoing races.
“I’m worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or weeks to be finalized, there is a risk of civil unrest across the country,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Wall Street analysts last week. “Given this, companies like ours need to go well beyond what we’ve done before.”
But critics, including many Democrats, contend that the companies have not done enough. They say that social media sites should be more aggressive in penalizing Trump and his chorus for spreading lies, and they’re likely to push the companies to take tougher action now that Trump has falsely claimed victory.
The companies have been sensitive to pushback in the past, amending certain policies when hit with widespread criticism. But they had sought to get ahead of potential confusion on Election Day by setting policies in advance.
Facebook and Google also took the extraordinary step of suspending election-related ads indefinitely after the election, in part to prevent campaigns and their allies from paying to spread misleading claims or declare unearned victories. Twitter, for its part, banned political ads late last year.
For weeks, the three companies have been promoting credible information about voting and the electoral process on their platforms. This year, those efforts include warnings that the outcome could be delayed due to the increased number of voters casting mail-in ballots.
Misinformation fears: The fears of rampant misinformation are not limited to executives haunted by the mistakes of the 2016 election cycle. Misinformation researchers have also warned that confusion around the outcome on Election Day and the days to follow creates fertile ground for false claims.
They have cautioned social media users not to equate uncertainty with illegitimacy, even if candidates push such a narrative, and to avoid amplifying premature projections that give the impression a candidate has won while votes are still being counted.
"In a situation where you have an extended period where you don’t have the certified information because the counting is still going on, that’s the window of opportunity for the threat actors," said Ben Nimmo, the director of investigations at Graphika, a network analytics firm that tracks misinformation. "The longer that window is open, then the more room there is for threat actors to try and exploit it."
Misleading posts could target both Democrats and Republicans. Foreign disinformation agents could get in on the action too, as they continue to "sow our distrust in the process," warned Kate Starbird, a University of Washington associate professor.
“People are going to be vulnerable on both sides of the political spectrum and there’s going to be a lot of very strategic efforts to manipulate that uncertainty and that confusion toward certain objectives domestically," Starbird said.
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