When Trump spoke early Wednesday morning, it became clear what the long-feared election scenario a fearful nation was facing.
"This is a scam for the American public," Trump said in remarks to the White House, mixing his campaign with the presidency. “We prepared to win this election. To be honest, we won this election. "
Trump's claim to victory is bogus – votes are still counted in a tight race – but they announced his campaign's intent to work on the misinformation ecosystem he has nurtured for the past four years. His strategy so far is what he has long signaled: use the late postal ballot numbers that were expected to favor the Democrats to create a conspiracy.
On Wednesday Twitter hid three of Trump's five recently published tweets behind warning signs stating that their content was "controversial and potentially misleading". Most recently, the president tweeted: “You are working hard to get 500,000 votes out of Pennsylvania as soon as possible. Likewise Michigan and others! "
In another recent letter, he bypassed the engagement limits of a restricted tweet and expanded it to his own follower base, where it was retweeted 32,000 times. The tweet's author corrected his original conspiratorial claims about the Michigan Democratic vote, but by that point the horse had already left the stable.
This tweet was recorded and shared honestly. I have now learned that the MI update referred to was a typo in a county.
I deleted the original tweet. pic.twitter.com/NXQINWDbEH
– Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) November 4, 2020
The Trump campaign's unfounded fear of the integrity of the ballot papers began long before the election. In September, a campaign video showed Donald Trump Jr.'s rail against Democrats, whom he accused of "adding millions of fraudulent ballots that can nullify your vote and topple the election". There was still no evidence of this then. The video and its calls for an "army for Trump" prompted Facebook to change its voter intimidation rules.
In the months leading up to the election, Trump repeatedly refused to pledge to allow the election to take place in the event of a loss, a stance Americans may follow in real time in the hours and days ahead.
Democrats have also been hit with misinformation labels, although none of their perpetrators (so far) is actively participating in a competitive race. Twitter marked the tweet by President Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, claiming that Biden had received 270 votes, with a warning that he was "controversial".
Biden wins Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and NE2. That's 270
– Neera – Vote now – Tanden (@neeratanden) November 4, 2020
Other warnings surfaced after calling some states early yesterday. After Fox News called Biden in Arizona alone, some political reporters who tweeted these results had their tweets paired with a label that said the race hadn't been called up yet.
Facebook and Twitter's philosophies differ in how to deal with a president who tends to sow political misinformation. Twitter posts a warning label to illegal election tweets, marking them as potentially "misleading". It checks them behind this message and restricts replies, retweets, and likes, severely limiting their viral potential.
Twitter immediately stopped political advertising a year ago. While Facebook continues to allow this, once the surveys were completed, the company implemented a blackout for these ads that will continue to apply.
Facebook adds its own “labels” to polling posts that violate the rules, but these primarily aim to direct users to contextual, factual information, rather than explicit warnings about false claims. In direct response to Trump's premature victory claims, Facebook also posted a flashy series of messages on Facebook and Instagram reminding users that the votes are still being counted.
When President Trump started making early victory claims, we posted notifications on Facebook and Instagram that the votes are still being counted and a winner will not be projected. With this information, the contributions of both candidates are automatically labeled. pic.twitter.com/tuGGLJkwcy
– Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) November 4, 2020
Of course, misinformation also thrives beyond Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube in places where it's harder to track. They switch from obscure chans to mainstream social media and back again and mutate in the process. Earlier Wednesday, Trump was happy to make his dangerous claim to an undeserved win on live television – and so far, many news networks have been obliged to air it. This is also a cause for concern.
Both Facebook and Twitter have prepared specific guidelines for a tight, ambiguous election night, but their rules will be put to the test in the coming days as fears of political violence and challenges to the election result escalate.