America really doesn’t need Silicon Valley to get into the fact-checking bizby David Harsanyi
No American, not even the president, has a right to a social-media account. Tech firms are free to ban any user they see fit. They’re free to “fact-check” anyone and enforce their policies consistently or capriciously. They’re free to do all these things.
Even if they shouldn’t.
This week, after years of pressure from the left, Twitter labeled two of President Trump’s tweets — in which he warned of fraud associated with mail-in ballots — as “potentially misleading.” It’s a mistake for any platform to drop its neutral stance. It will corrode trust without changing a single mind.
Once Twitter begins tagging some tweets and not others with “what you need to know,” it will be staking out partisan positions. The Trump tweets that precipitated its first fact-check are a good example. It would have been far more reasonable for the social-media giant to tag Trump’s ugly and slanderous tweets about Joe Scarborough. Instead, the firm inaugurated its policy by alleging that Trump had dishonestly claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to “a rigged election.”
Even if this contention were entirely baseless, it would be as untrue as saying Russia rigged the 2016 election — a claim that politicians such as Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi, along with most major media outlets, have been making for years. But while the president’s rhetoric about voting is debatable, it is also well within the normal parameters of contemporary political discourse.
It isn’t exactly “unsubstantiated” to assert that more mail-in ballots “would lead to voter fraud,” as Twitter holds. There are dozens of instances of potential voter fraud investigated every year. The Heritage Foundation has cataloged 1,285 prosecuted cases.
Which is to say that contending that “voter fraud” is a problem is no more misleading than contending tax cuts will hurt the poor or that repealing net-neutrality rules will destroy the Internet. In practice, “voter fraud” is no more a conspiracy theory than is “voter suppression.” Both happen on occasion, yet there is no evidence that either has toppled the outcome of any modern election.
The problem is that only one of these two issues will earn a “more information” tag from Twitter, because only one of these two issues offends the sensibilities of the liberals.
In another tweet, Trump claimed that everyone in California will be mailed a ballot. This is untrue. But so is the pinned tweet of the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden: “I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach.” The president never instructed anyone to drink bleach, yet Biden repeats this incessantly, along with numerous other misleading statements about his record and GOP policies.
Which brings us to the problem: Who will Twitter designate as its judge? Its fact-checking page redirects users to debunkings by CNN, The Washington Post, Vox, HuffPost and other outlets that often deceive their audiences with far more sophistication than the president.
These outlets like to appeal to the authority of experts, but not experts whose conclusions contradict their own. There is a reason we debate issues rather than appoint “truth magistrates” to hand down verdicts: For the most part, politics is a dispute not over facts but values.
As is often the case, Trump immediately ceded the high ground by threatening to “strongly regulate” or shut down social-media platforms. Such threats are nothing new for this president, who has often menaced media with regulations and legal action, although one cannot help but notice a paradox. Trump usually doens’t follow through on his destructive threats to inhibit speech — but does follow through on his promise to cram the courts full of judges who have deference for First Amendment.
One hopes those judges shoot down his newest executive order aimed at stripping social-media companies of liability protections.
Meanwhile, his “save-democracy” opponents routinely pressure tech companies to censor. The distress over social media is predicated on the idea that average Americans are too dim to grapple with the messiness of unfettered speech. Many leftists — those who wanted to institute fairness doctrines or overturn Citizens United — admit this openly when they suggest that unregulated speech is corroding “democracy.”
Trump is the first president to take advantage of direct, instantaneous access to millions of Americans. Whether this is helpful to his cause is debatable. Certainly, we are blessed that the president’s policies and rhetoric are often disconnected.
Whatever the case, though, we have an entire industry that stands ready to challenge the veracity of his statements. We don’t need Twitter to join in the fact-checking game. Silicon Valley doesn’t have the resources, knowledge or people to do it correctly.