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How Trump leverages Twitter to spread misinformation

President Trump’s messages to his more than 80 million Twitter followers can carry a lot of weight -- but don’t always represent the truth. Controversy recently erupted over a Trump tweet that had no basis in fact. Now, the social media platform is applying a note to it that directs users to more information. Yamiche Alcindor reports and speaks with Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump's messages to his more than 80 million Twitter followers often carry a lot of weight.

    For the first time, the company, Twitter, is putting a note on one of his tweets questioning the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, pointing users to where they can get more information.

    But it's the president's comments about the death of a congressional staffer 20 years ago that is raising eyebrows. Those tweets have not been given the same warning from Twitter.

    In a moment, Yamiche Alcindor will have a conversation about the way social media companies are dealing with fact vs. fiction on their platforms. That conversation was recorded before this latest move by Twitter.

    But she begins with this report.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    An angry president, a murder conspiracy theory, and a pained family.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thank you very much, everybody.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, it's a letter from a widower that is calling attention to President Trump's open embrace of false theories.

    Last week, Timothy Klausutis wrote to the CEO of Twitter, urging him to delete tweets by President Trump that suggested his wife, Lori, was murdered.

    In the letter, obtained by The New York Times, Klausutis says that — quote — "conspiracy theorists, including most recently the president of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on the platform," disparaging the memory of his wife.

    Lori Klausutis died in 2001.

    President Trump has repeatedly spread the baseless idea that her former boss, current cable news host Joe Scarborough, might have had something to do with her death.

    Late today at the White House, the president doubled down.

  • President Donald Trump:

    No, it's a very suspicious thing. And I hope somebody gets to the bottom of it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, Scarborough, who has frequently criticized President Trump, said the claim compounds the family's grief.

  • Joe Scarborough:

    Whether it's the president or whether it's people following the president, it is unspeakably cruel.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Timothy Klausutis wrote in his letter that: "Lori had an undiagnosed heart condition. She fell and hit her head on her desk at work, and was found dead the next morning."

    He wrote that he had a simple request for Twitter: "Please delete these tweets."

    President Trump's actions have been criticized by some Republicans, including Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He wrote: "Stop spreading it. Stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us."

    President Trump's tweets raise questions about his own political calculations and role and responsibility of social media companies and the media.

    Joining me to talk about all of this is Craig Silverman. He's the media editor at BuzzFeed News, and he's covered misinformation.

    Thanks so much, Craig, for being here.

    President Trump just took questions about this. He's doubling down on this conspiracy theory and saying that it's a very serious issue.

    Again, this is a baseless claim. What do you make of that, Craig?

  • Craig Silverman:

    I think it's kind of, in character in that he does not apologize, he does not correct for things.

    And when he is pushed back on something, he tends to double down on it. And, also, I think we have to recognize the dynamics here, where he is kind of pushing this baseless claim into the news cycle. He is forcing media to cover it. He is forcing people to talk about it on Twitter and elsewhere.

    And when you talk about this kind of claim, there's less time to talk about other things. So, in a sense, it's maybe not surprising that he's doubling down, he's not apologizing, but he's also trying to make this last for more news cycles and get more attention on this, instead of other things that he may consider to be inconvenient for him.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In other words, this is working for the president, you think?

  • Craig Silverman:

    I think this is part of the dynamic that we have seen going on now really since he started his campaign five years ago, where he goes extreme, he says completely outlandish, crazy things that you would think would discount and hurt anyone, but it just gets him more and more attention, brings more and more people to him.

    And in the end, he will take any kind of attention he can get. I think he's been very savvy about hacking the media to get that attention.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, the family of the young woman who died, who was a former staffer of Joe Scarborough, they wrote a letter — the widower wrote a letter to Twitter, asking that the company delete the president's tweets.

    What do you make of that letter and the fact Twitter is not going to be deleting those tweets?

  • Craig Silverman:

    First of all, clearly, it's a really powerful letter. It's him speaking very personally about the suffering that he and his late wife's family have gone through and how they could be targeted with harassment, how this is bringing up the grieving process all over again.

    The second part of this is that Twitter has been extremely hands-off, extremely reticent to do anything in terms of restricting President Trump's behavior on the platform. And so, as much as it's a very moving letter, I have to say, I'm not surprised that Twitter has sort of held its line and said, we're not going to remove these tweets, because he's the president.

    What he says is newsworthy. And they have basically given him and, to a certain extent, other world leaders a different standard than pretty much everyone else on the platform.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the bigger picture here, do you think that conspiracy theories and misinformation, that they're spreading more in the middle of this pandemic?

    And what are media companies to do, given the fact that, if you cover them, you're giving light and energy to conspiracy theories?

  • Craig Silverman:

    I think we're absolutely seeing a really dangerous and concerning high watermark in terms of the spread of false and misleading information and conspiracy theories.

    And, in a sense, that's always been the case during a pandemic. If you look through history, conspiracy theories and other things have always spread in this time. But, of course, we have this digital accelerant here in our environment, and it is so quick and so fast, and things move and are organized to spread really, really quickly in this environment.

    In terms of the companies, I mean, I think it shows some of the weaknesses of their approach, where they are very reactive, where they kind of wait until things hit a certain tipping point.

    And then, by then, potentially thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people have already seen and interacted with something, whether it's a conspiracy about Bill Gates, or whether it's a conspiracy about 5G wireless.

    It's just spreading and pulling a lot of people in. And I worry about that gravitational pull of grabbing more people to that conspiratorial point of view as a result of what's going on in the pandemic.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And you talk about a digital accelerant. In this case, you have world leaders, the president of the United States using that digital accelerant.

    Do you see any sort of change in policy here?

  • Craig Silverman:

    So, Twitter's response to the letter from the widower was that they are looking at introducing some new policy changes to address this.

    And they weren't any more specific than that. It is possible that Twitter is going to introduce and draw a new line in the sand. But I think they know that it's also kind of a dangerous thing for them to come back and say, OK, we have — we have changed our mind.

    I don't think they're going to come back and delete Trump's tweets. I think they may set a new policy and try to draw that line in the sand.

    But, to a certain extent, I mean, they have let Trump and, to a certain extent, others on the platform get away with so much, that they're really trying to fix things, once they have already gone really awry. And it's hard to imagine Twitter suddenly being able to not only come up with new rules, but to enforce them, because we have to remember that these platforms are so big that they can't actually monitor everything that's going on that's breaking their existing policies.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you so much, Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed News. We appreciate you coming on.

  • Craig Silverman:

    Thank you.

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