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Commentary: When Twitter Fact-Checked The President

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Before Donald Trump became president, he took to Twitter to build a base of supporters who were attracted to his conspiracy theories and attacks on President Obama. As president, Trump still uses Twitter but now his words are monitored by counters that keep track of disinformation. Texas Public Radio commentator Yvette Benavides offers this observation.

On the same Internet that hosts Trump’s Twitter account, we can also find websites with live counters of Trump’s lies.  Every major media publication and outlet from Vanity Fair to the New York Times has featured major stories, counting down the lies and underscoring this fact of life in America. The numbers are staggering—up to 18,000 false or misleading claims by the president as of early April.

This week, Trump tweeted that mail-in ballots are “fraudulent.” Twitter did not remove the tweet—the lie. However, they did attach a fact-check link to it.  

Trump cried foul and—falsely again—claimed Twitter was “stifling Free Speech” perhaps failing to understand the difference between this First Amendment right and the spread of malice and misrepresentations.  In retaliation, he signed an executive order on Thursday, saying he would punish social media companies for how they police content.  

Here is a straight up fact: the Covid-19 pandemic and its indiscriminate effects on American citizens. That’s all real. No fact-checking needed.

Mail-in voting is important in the time of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Many are still wary of the precipitous opening up of businesses and the forecasts of second and third waves.  Some of us did not believe Trump’s initial baseless claims that the virus would miraculously disappear after a dozen cases, that it could be eradicated by Easter or by any day at all in this country when citizens are sent mixed messages based on wishes and lies and not on scientific and medical expertise. The mixed messaging also involves the wearing of masks to cover mouths and noses and help stop the spread of droplets to others. Trump has politicized the masks, too, refusing to wear one—he has openly characterized the wearing of a mask as the “political correctness” of the left prompting scores of people all over the country to forgo the face-coverings and return to convening in large crowds.

The protests this week in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed by four policemen, one of whom balanced his full weight on Floyd’s neck—on his knees—for over eight minutes, ignoring the man’s pleas that he could not breathe—developed over two days and exploded on Thursday.  Buildings were looted and set on fire.  Trump responded—on Twitter.  He sent forth a tweet that threatened “shooting,” those involved. The prospect is chilling as in a situation like this, there will always be collateral damage—and more innocent lives lost. His words are gasoline on an already volatile situation. Twitter responded by flagging the tweet with a warning as one that “glorified violence.”

Would that the sin of bald-faced lying be replaced by a sin of omission—omission. Silence. No more tweets—and a way toward stemming the threats that embolden further violence or incite more problems—and the live counters from recording one more falsehood or inflammatory statement from the leadership of this country.

Yvette Benavides is a Texas Public Radio contributor. She teaches creative writing at Our Lady of the University. She is the co-author of the book San Antonio 365.