Misinformation Watch

By Donie O'Sullivan, Kaya Yurieff, Kelly Bourdet, the CNN Business team and contributors from across CNN

Updated 11:21 a.m. ET, January 26, 2021
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12:46 p.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Disappearing 'Fleets' bring new misinformation challenges for Twitter

From CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

Twitter launched its own version of disappearing posts this week, called Fleets, to some fanfare (and eye rolls). But it's had to pause the rollout as the feature has been plagued with glitches, calling into question whether the product was fully ready.

Unlike typical tweets, Fleets do not receive retweets, likes or public replies, with Twitter hoping they will reduce the pressure many people feel on social media. But ephemeral content will bring fresh challenges for Twitter, such as how it will effectively moderate misinformation, harassment and abuse on content that disappears after 24 hours.

The timing of Twitter's launch is curious – not only because it's adopting "stories" so many years after rivals – but also as it comes in the wake of a contentious election in the US. Ahead of the election, Twitter made several changes to its platform and created new policies to try to minimize the harmful impacts of misinformation. Though Joe Biden has been projected President-elect, that hasn’t curbed the flow of online misinformation or baseless claims of voter fraud, which are being pushed by President Trump and his allies on Twitter.

The company said it labeled about 300,000 tweets for content that was disputed or potentially misleading during a two-week period covering the election, and its aggressive efforts to provide context on such content continue.

How effectively and consistently Twitter will tackle misinformation or abuse in Fleets is an open question. Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said Fleets will be subject to the same rules as regular tweets. For example, if President Trump decides to Fleet misinformation, the Fleet would receive a similar fact-check label as a tweet would.

Twitter will rely on user flags to manage abuse on Fleets, as well as its automated systems. Users can report a Fleet as abusive or harmful, misleading about a political election or other civic event or say it expresses intentions of self-harm or suicide.

Extremism researcher Marc-Andre Argentino experimented with sharing a variety of misinformation and hateful content in Fleets, and most were not marked with a warning label.

For example, a Fleet that falsely said "Vaccines don't work" and one containing an untrue conspiracy theory about Covid-19, were left untouched. Meanwhile, Argentino's Fleet saying "5g causes covid" -- another baseless conspiracy theory -- had a warning before it.

The warning label said: "Some or all of the content shared in this Fleet conflicts with guidance from public health experts regarding COVID-19." Users had to click through the warning before viewing the Fleet.

It's unclear why Twitter took action on the latter conspiracy theory, but not the former. Twitter's lengthy policies about Covid-19 misinformation say: "We will continue to remove demonstrably false or potentially misleading content that has the highest risk of causing harm."

"We are always listening to feedback and working to improve Twitter to make sure it’s safe for people to contribute to the public conversation," Pavela said. "We’ll take enforcement action against any Twitter rule violations in Fleets accordingly."

It's worth noting a lot of content beyond Fleets goes unmoderated on Twitter, even when it violates its rules, but because Fleets disappear so quickly, it will likely be harder for the company to take action fast enough. The company said its systems will store Fleets for a limited amount of time past their 24 hour expiration to give it more time to review user flags and potentially take action. However, by that point it would be too late to label misinformation.

There are also other concerns with Fleets raising questions about whether the product was ready to be fully rolled out. Beyond general glitches and lag, there is a loophole which allows someone to tag you in a Fleet even if you've blocked them, opening the door for potential harassment. (Twitter said it's working to fix this).

Late Wednesday, Twitter said it was "slowing down" the rollout of Fleets to fix "performance and stability problems."

When asked on a call with reporters earlier this week about how the company will approach moderation as it rolls out Fleets and tests new audio-focused features, Christine Su, senior product manager at Twitter said: “It’s really important for us to be building controls and features that people can take with them to feel more comfortable and safe as they move through the variety of spaces that we’re building.”

She added that the company is doing “a ton” behind the scenes with expanding its rules and policies to prevent abuse and harassment before it happens, although she didn’t elaborate further. “We’re going to continue to do that with every space that we’re working on," Su said.

10:31 a.m. ET, November 19, 2020

Trump baselessly claims Georgia will 'flip Republican'

From CNN's Betsy Klein

President Donald Trump continues to baselessly claim that the election results will shift in his favor in Georgia, where the state plans to announce the results of the statewide audit around noon on Thursday.

Trump baselessly claimed the results would change after signature matching in a tweet and made accusations of widespread fraud, despite no credible evidence, in another tweet, both aimed at Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump ally.

But Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger told CNN’s Jake Tapper Wednesday that once the audit ends, he believes Biden will carry the state and that they have “not seen widespread voter fraud.”

The Republican leader also intimated that Trump lost Georgia because he questioned the mail-in ballot process in the fall, saying: “24,000 Republicans that actually voted absentee in the June primary did not come out in the Fall and vote. They did not vote absentee nor did they vote in early voting or the day of the election. 24,000… that’s the margin right there.”

The Secretary of State plans to post county-by-county tallies with timestamp, so the public can view the results of the audit. Georgia’s voting systems implementation manager Gabriel Sterling said that the state has finished auditing virtually all ballots from the presidential race. About 5 million Georgians voted. The Secretary has until Friday to certify the results.

Trump would have two business days after state certification to ask for a recount. Trump called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to “get it done!”

Trump tweeted: "Thousands of uncounted votes discovered in Georgia counties. When the much more important signature match takes place, the State will flip Republican, and very quickly. Get it done! @BrianKempGA

In a separate tweet, he said: "Almost ZERO ballots rejected in Georgia this election. In years past, close to 4%. Not possible. Must have signature check on envelopes now. Very easy to do. Dems fighting because they got caught. Far more votes than needed for flip. Republicans must get tough! @BrianKempGA"

As of 10:30 am ET on Thursday, neither tweet was labeled by Twitter.

5:57 p.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Republican who temporarily blocked certification of a Michigan county’s results shared election conspiracy theories on Facebook 

From CNN's Donie O'Sullivan and Annie Grayer 

William Hartmann, a Republican member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, who temporarily blocked certification of election results in the Michigan county on Tuesday, has recently shared conspiracy theories about the election and Covid-19 on Facebook, CNN has found. He also shared racist posts about President Barack Obama during his presidency. 

On Tuesday, he was one of two Republicans on the four-person Wayne County bipartisan canvassing board to temporarily block certification of votes based on dubious claims of voting irregularities in Detroit.

The initial vote against certification drew the attention of the President, who posted a series of tweets praising the GOP members of the canvassing board for "having courage." 

After a few hours, however, Hartmann and his Republican colleague voted to certify the votes. 

On Saturday, November 7th, the day major news outlets projected Joe Biden President-elect, Hartmann posted on Facebook, “I'm reading the news on how great things are now that Biden and Harris are in as declared by the MSM. What will happen if it doesn't happen once the official results are tallied? I wouldn't sell the farm yet.” 

Later that day, he wrote, “I’m not really one to promote conspiracy theories” but told his Facebook friends to look up “hammer and scorecard” a conspiracy theory that has been widely debunked but did go viral after the election. 

On November 9th, Hartmann furthered a conspiracy theory pushed by some Trump supporters that suggested the timing of the announcement of a Covid-19 vaccine was politically-motivated. “As predicted: Not even a week after the election and they've now got a covid vaccine that's 90% effective.”

CNN has reached out to Hartmann for comment through social media, email and though phone numbers listed as being associated with him.

In October, he shared a link to an OAN video that pushed a widely debunked conspiracy theory that claims hospitals are inflating the Covid-19 death-toll by falsely reporting deaths from the virus. 

“Eye Opener. Do the math. How much were Hospitals overpaid by falsely reporting?” Hartmann wrote. 

That post was labeled as false by Facebook’s fact-checkers.

Hartmann has shared multiple videos from OAN on Facebook over the past few weeks. OAN is a conservative cable network that the President has been promoting heavily in recent days as it continues to share misinformation undermining the integrity of the election. 

The relevance of Hartmann’s Facebook posts in light of the deadlock in Michigan were flagged earlier on Twitter by Del Quentin Wilber, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. 

When President Obama was in office, Hartmann’s shared a series of racist posts about the President on Facebook that were still online on Wednesday.

The images in the posts equated Obama to a criminal and an Islamic terrorist.

Facebook removed one of the posts – which equated Obama to an Islamic terrorist – after the company was contacted by CNN on Wednesday. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the post was removed under Facebook’s hate speech policies. The company did not immediately provide comment about the other posts. 

CNN's Mi Seon Lee contributed reporting

2:21 p.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Google gets a pass from Senate hearing on content moderation

From CNN Business' Rishi Iyengar

Facebook and Twitter have faced immense scrutiny for their content moderation practices and efforts to clamp down on disinformation, including at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee where the CEOs of both companies were questioned for over four hours.

But another big tech rival grappling with many of the same issues has been relatively absent from the conversation.

"Google has been given a pass from today's hearing," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said on Tuesday. "It's been rewarded by this committee for its timidity, doing even less than [Facebook and Twitter] have to live up to its responsibilities."

Google-owned YouTube was criticized for not doing enough to deal with misinformation during the election, applying a far less aggressive strategy than Facebook or Twitter did.

The video platform placed an information panel at the top of search results related to the election, as well as below videos that talked about the election, but allowed some videos containing misinformation to stay online without labeling or fact-checking it.

Blumenthal argued that tech companies have only taken "baby steps" to combat harmful misinformation on their platforms.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Blumenthal's remarks.

This isn't the first time Google has escaped — or avoided — scrutiny from lawmakers, though CEO Sundar Pichai did testify alongside his counterparts from Facebook and Twitter last month.

Back in 2018, the Senate Intelligence Committee set up an empty chair with a placard for Google next to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg during a hearing about foreign use of social media to influence US politics, in a swipe at the company's refusal to offer up Pichai or another high-level executive to testify.

1:27 p.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Trump continues to claim he won the election. He did not.

From CNN's Betsy Klein

President Donald Trump continued to baselessly claim he won the election, re-upping the assertion in an all-caps tweet, on Wednesday morning.

“...AND I WON THE ELECTION. VOTER FRAUD ALL OVER THE COUNTRY!” he wrote, along with a link to a New York Times story that said he received 10.1 million more votes across the US than he received four years ago. 

That may be true, but amid unprecedented turnout, Joe Biden won by well over 5 million votes. And there is no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

More misinformation from Trump in morning tweets:

Trump continued to spread more blatant misinformation on Twitter Wednesday morning, and multiple tweets have been flagged by Twitter.

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is too “hard at work” to spend Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago. He’s been bunkered at the White House with no public events firing off tweets, 12 as of 1:20 pm ET.

For example, Trump tweeted: "THEY WOULD’NT [sic] LET REPUBLICAN POLL WATCHERS INTO THE COUNTING ROOMS. UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!!" The tweet is presumably referring to Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth’s Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that a Trump campaign ballot processing observer in Philadelphia had no right to stand any particular distance away from election workers, and it's up to counties to decide where poll watchers can stand.

This claim on the Georgia recount, Twitter says, is disputed. Trump tweeted: "The Georgia recount is a joke and is being done UNDER PROTEST. Even though thousands of fraudulent votes have been found, the real number is in matching signatures. Governor must open up the unconstitutional Consent Decree and call in the Legislature!"

Quoting a tweet on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, he also writes: "They didn’t even allow Republican Observers into the building to watch. A terrible insult to our Constitution!"

Trump also baselessly claimed the election was rigged with these false assertions: "This was a rigged election. No Republican Poll Watchers allowed, voting machine 'glitches' all over the place (meaning they got caught cheating!), voting after election ended, and so much more!"

Twitter labeled all of the above tweets saying the claims about election fraud were "disputed."

11:34 a.m. ET, November 18, 2020

'Just ridiculous': CNN speaks to Georgia voter the Trump campaign falsely accused of casting ballot in the name of a dead woman

From CNN's Konstantin Toropin, Daniel Dale and Amara Walker

Deborah Christiansen
Deborah Christiansen

President Donald Trump's campaign and Fox News host Tucker Carlson alleged last week that a vote cast by a Georgia woman named Deborah Jean Christiansen was fraudulent. 

The allegation was false -- like two other voter fraud claims the Trump campaign and Carlson leveled against legal Georgia voters last week. 

The campaign and Carlson said this vote was a fraud because Deborah Jean Christiansen died last year. In fact, the vote was legally cast by a living woman who also happens to be named Deborah Jean Christiansen, born in the same year and month but on a different day. 

Christiansen answered the door when CNN showed up on Tuesday evening. 

She said the false accusation from the Trump campaign is "just ridiculous," part of an effort by a "narcissist" president to deny the obvious reality of his defeat.

Christiansen, a retired mental health counselor who moved from Nebraska to Georgia in September, said she voted for Trump in 2016 but came to regret the decision, then voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

Read more here.

9:53 a.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Company debunks conspiracy theory that its server showed a landslide for Trump

From CNN Business' Oliver Darcy

An elections security company has had to push back against a conspiracy theory that has been pushed by a prominent Republican congressman and two right-wing news networks despite, uh, having a lot of holes in it.

As with many conspiracy theories, this one has different permutations and explanations. But the basic idea of the most extreme belief around this theory is this: The US Army or maybe the intelligence community raided (there was no raid) the Frankfurt, Germany offices of a company (that has no Frankfurt offices) that tallies all votes in US elections (it does not do any tallying of votes, much less conduct any official tally of all votes in the US, which no single company does). 

Data on a server seized in that raid (no server was seized, there was no raid) showed that votes were switched (they weren't) and that Trump had secured a massive landslide of 410 Electoral College votes, winning California (which hasn't gone for a Republican since 1988 and which Hillary Clinton won by 30 percentage points in 2016) and Rhode Island (which has gone for a Republican only once since 1976) but somehow not Colorado (which was considered a swing state as recently as 2008).

Read more here.

9:53 a.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Facebook and Twitter chart out different paths for Congress on internet regulation

From CNN Business' Brian Fung

In a Senate hearing on Tuesday that stretched on for more than four hours, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter sought to recalibrate their relationship with Congress, apologizing for past mistakes while trying to set the tone for future regulation of their industry that's expected to see a bigger push in 2021.

It was the second time the CEOs had been summoned to testify in as many months. As expected, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey faced their fair share of allegations by lawmakers of anti-conservative bias and failure to remove misinformation and hate speech. But this hearing lacked much of the grandstanding and attacks of the pre-election hearings.

A broader theme of the hearing was to establish what responsibilities tech companies should have for moderating content, and what role the US government should play — a critical question that will inform a legislative effort on online content next year, once a new Congress is sworn in.

Laying down baseline expectations for the outcome of that effort, leading members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said they did not think it's appropriate for the US government to get directly involved in online content moderation.

Read more here

9:57 a.m. ET, November 18, 2020

Trump fires director of Homeland Security agency who had rejected President's election conspiracy theories

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Paul LeBlanc

President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired the Department of Homeland Security official who had rejected Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud.

Trump announced on Twitter he was firing Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and directly tied it to Krebs' statement that said there "is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised."

"The recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud," Trump said in a tweet that also repeated other baseless conspiracy theories about the election and was flagged by Twitter as "disputed."

"Therefore, effective immediately, Chris Krebs has been terminated as Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency."

Read more here