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Study finds warning labels did little to halt spread of Trump's misinformation

Trump Twitter suspension
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At the end of his presidency, Donald Trump was frequently reprimanded by Twitter for spreading false statements about the 2020 election. But a recent study found that flagging his tweets as misinformation did little to stop their spread.

In fact, Trump's tweets that were marked as containing misinformation spread further than the tweets that received no intervention from Twitter, researchers at New York University's Center for Social Media and Politics found. Their report, released Tuesday, analyzed more than 1,100 of the former president's tweets from the start of November 2020 to Jan. 8, the day Trump was suspended from the social media platform.

Of the tweets analyzed, 303 received "soft intervention" from Twitter, meaning they were labeled as disputed and potentially misleading. Sixteen tweets contained egregious enough falsehoods to receive "hard intervention," and were removed from the site or blocked from user engagement. The remaining 830 tweets received no intervention from Twitter.

While hard interventions did stop select misinformation from spreading further on Twitter, soft interventions did not have the same effect. The report found that messages with misinformation labels received more user engagement than those without interference.

But even blocking false messages on Twitter wasn't completely sufficient in combating the spread of Trump's worst misinformation, the report found. His tweets that were removed from the platform spiked in engagement on other social media outlets, namely Facebook, Instagram and Reddit.

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However, the report notes, these findings do not necessarily mean Twitter's misinformation warning labels were ineffective or led to a so-called "Streisand effect," wherein an attempt to hide or remove information unintentionally draws more attention to it.

"It's possible Twitter intervened on posts that were more likely to spread, or it's possible Twitter's interventions caused a backlash and increased their spread," said Zeve Sanderson, one of the report's co-authors.

"Nonetheless, the findings underscore how intervening on one platform has limited impact when content can easily spread on others," said Megan Brown, another co-author of the report. "To more effectively counteract misinformation on social media, it's important for both technologists and public officials to consider broader content moderation policies that can work across social platforms rather than singular platforms."

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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