Twitter blocked and tagged some of Donald Trump’s election fraud allegations in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
The tweets have spread in and out of Twitter anyway.
That’s according to a new study by New York University researchers published Tuesday in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review and shared exclusively with USA TODAY.
The study raises questions about the ability of social media companies to stop the flow of lies on mainstream social media platforms during election cycles.
NYU researchers say Trump’s tweets with fact-checking tags have spread more on Twitter than those without. And when Twitter blocked engagement with the former president’s tweets, they jumped to Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit where they were more popular than the tweets that Twitter tagged or didn’t flag at all.
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It is not clear whether Twitter intervened on the social media posts that were more likely to spread or if it was the intervention itself that gave tweets a boost, the researchers said.
But they say their study highlights how harmful disinformation can move from platform to platform with too little coordination between social media companies to curb its spread.
“Disinformation that stops on one platform doesn’t stop it on another,” said Megan Brown, research engineer at NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics.
Blocked on Twitter, Trump’s tweets appeared on Facebook as links, quotes and screenshots, where they garnered an average engagement of over 300,000, said Zeve Sanderson, executive director of the NYU center.
This phenomenon shows that “political actors seeking to advance an online narrative are not limited to working within a single platform,” said Joshua Tucker, co-director of the center.
“We are in a world where the people who try to control information environments and who try to push political information environments are in a multiplatform world,” Tucker said. “Right now the only way we have to manage content is platform by platform. “
In a statement, Twitter said it has taken a number of steps to limit engagement on tweets that violate its rules.
“As election conversations reached record highs, it was essential that we take swift enforcement action against deceptive content that could contribute to harm offline,” the company said.
From October 27 to November 11, Twitter characterized some 300,000 tweets as disputed or potentially misleading, and recorded an estimated 29% drop in quotes from tweets.
“We continue to research, challenge and modify features that could induce or encourage behaviors on Twitter that negatively affect the health of the online conversation or could cause harm offline,” the company said.
Twitter’s most significant intervention was to ban Trump for good in the dying days of his presidency following the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill, a move that raised thorny questions of free speech and censorship over social networks.
At the time, Trump had 88.7 million followers who retweeted him at an astonishing rate, giving him almost unprecedented power to shape the national conversation.
After his supporters stormed the United States Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory, the country’s three major social media platforms – Facebook, Google’s YouTube, and Twitter – banned Trump, fearing that he would incite more violence.
YouTube has said it will lift the suspension once the “risk of violence” decreases. In June, Facebook said the first Trump would regain access to his accounts would be 2023. Even if Trump runs for president and wins in 2024, Twitter said he would not reinstate him.
Trump has attacked social media companies for tagging, restricting or deleting his posts that spread lies about the presidential election result.
In July, Trump filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Google, Twitter and their CEOs, claiming the companies had violated his First Amendment rights.
In a backlash from the conservatives, dozens of states are considering legislation that targets how social media platforms regulate speech. A bill was passed in Florida but was temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
Another in Texas got the votes he needed in a special session of the Republican-controlled legislature, but remained in limbo after Democrats left the state for Washington to protest an effort by the Republicans. GOP aimed at overhauling the state electoral system.
NYU researchers say they focused on Trump’s tweets “because of evidence that he acted as a central vehicle for spreading disinformation about election relations.”
They examined tweets from November 1, 2020 to January 8, 2021, reported by Twitter.
Blocking engagement with Trump’s tweets limited their dissemination on Twitter but not elsewhere, the researchers found. The tweets were posted more often and were more popular on other social media platforms.
When Twitter put a warning label on Trump’s tweets, they were more popular than his untagged tweets, researchers said.
The discovery doesn’t necessarily mean the warning labels were ineffective or had the “Streisand effect,” when an attempt to hide or suppress information draws even more attention to it, Sanderson said. It could be that the types of tweets tagged by Twitter are also the type that would be most likely to spread.
“Going forward, especially with regard to the current pandemic and the mid-term of 2022 to come, it will be really important that the platforms coordinate one way or another, if they can, to stop the spread of disinformation, ”Brown said.