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Election 'misinformation' policing returns as Twitter flags JTN ballot harvesting report

Twitter's Musk era begins with throttling of JTN report on Democrat alleging ballot harvesting in Florida. Fed-backed consortium flags "rumors" about arrest of poll worker management firm's CEO for alleged storage of data on Chinese servers.

Published: October 28, 2022 5:24pm

Updated: October 28, 2022 11:41pm

If it's true that, as the adage has it, personnel is policy, then billionaire Elon Musk has already made an indelible mark as the new owner of Twitter by firing the top executives responsible for its strategic removal of purported misinformation and hate speech and deplatforming of high-profile users.

Whether and how quickly those censorship practices will meaningfully change is another question.

Not only do scores of prominent accounts, from the Christian satire website The Babylon Bee to former President Donald Trump, remain inaccessible to their owners or permanently suspended, but Just the News reporting continues to be throttled.

Shortly before Musk took ownership Thursday night, Twitter slapped an "unsafe" warning on a JTN report about a former Democratic candidate's sworn affidavit alleging years of illegal ballot harvesting in politically important central Florida, which prompted a state criminal probe.

The warning tells readers the "misleading" content "could lead to real-world harm." It's not inherently tied to the report's web address, but only displays as an interstitial when shared by certain accounts, including those of JTN founder John Solomon and Upward News

It appeared on polling firm Rasmussen Reports' tweet within a minute of its posting. Twitter appears to be suppressing search results for tweets sharing the report — not even Solomon's shows up.

Twitter put the same warning on a JTN report about the legal distinctions between fully approved and emergency-use COVID-19 vaccines last year. It also suspended Solomon for sharing that vaccine report and a subsequent report about a peer-reviewed study of COVID vaccines.

The platform has apparently taken no punitive action comparable to suspension against recent provably false claims in favor of Democrats, such as President Biden's claim that gas prices averaged more than $5 a gallon when he took office or that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas a day before Roe v. Wade was overturned. (It did add a reader note to Occupy Democrats' viral tweet about the latter.)

Monitoring and censorship of purported election "misinformation" was systematized and integrated with social media content moderation practices in 2020, with the formation of the Election Integrity Partnership, a Department of Homeland Security-endorsed private consortium that claimed tech platforms took action on 35% of URLs it flagged for election misinformation. The consortium has kept a close eye on Just the News since its after-action report on the 2020 election listed JTN among other news organizations on the 20 "most prominent domains across election integrity incidents" that were cited in flagged tweets.

JTN showed up in EIP's Oct. 28 blog post on "conspiratorial narratives" on election vulnerability disclosures. The consortium noted Solomon tweeted JTN's report on a University of Michigan computer scientist's warning about a "serious privacy flaw" in Dominion Voting Systems' machines.

"The conversation about the disclosure itself remained largely factual on the platform, though notably it spread primarily among accounts on the right who were already mistrustful of the security of Dominion voting machines," the post said.

In the consortium's Oct. 10-16 weekly report on its activities, it sought to dispel "rumors" about "potential foreign interference in elections" triggered by the arrest of poll worker management systems firm Konnech's CEO on charges related to storing data on Chinese servers.

EIP has a history of trying to knock down allegations of ballot harvesting, regardless of their factual grounding.

While acknowledging that the legality of third-party ballot collection and delivery varies by state, and that it can't flag harvesting narratives with "no falsifiable claims," EIP said two years ago the term "harvesting" is "increasingly disassociated with its original meaning and applied broadly to vote stealing and vote tampering allegations," usually against Democrats.

In an unsigned statement to Just the News, consortium member UW Center for an Informed Public said the EIP did not take action to encourage Twitter to flag the recent JTN story on ballot harvesting. It emphasized that "platforms are independent entities and make their own decisions about whether and how to respond" to submissions by EIP and others.

This spring UW's Center for an Informed Public aimed to knock down the related narrative of ballot "trafficking" made popular by the Dinesh D'Souza documentary "2000 Mules."

Such rhetoric, the center declared on its web site, "encompasses a potentially misleading framing of ballot collection violations and invites confusion of the ultimate impact of such violations," implying that ballots themselves are "invalid or illegal" and connecting to "terms popular in conspiracy theory communities."

In a spring presentation on the consortium's "rapid response coding schema" in anticipation of the 2022 midterm elections, a CIP researcher said they did a "small scale proof-of-concept test with the codebook" on the phrases "ballot trafficking" and "2000 Mules" on Twitter. She said they also worried about "disinformation" that makes people "fearful of becoming vaccinated."

Musk has tried to play both sides of the free-speech debate. In a statement to advertisers, some of whom reportedly threatened boycotts if Trump is reinstated, Musk said he wants to make the platform "a common digital town square where a wide range of beliefs can be debated" without becoming "a free-for-all-hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!"

Free speech advocates, including Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression CEO Greg Lukianoff, are pushing the Tesla CEO to adopt First Amendment principles in Twitter's content moderation practices.

Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco, who manages its Viewpoint Diversity Score Business Index, told Just the News that Musk's actions "so far are a good indicator that he's serious about implementing change for the better."

Twitter can raise its 6% index score by "eliminating speech codes that rely on vague terms like 'misinformation' and 'hate speech,'" which functionally protect "popular ideas and powerful people," Tedesco said.

It has a history of hypocrisy by using "hateful conduct" or "misinformation" policies to "crack down on viewpoints concerning gender ideology, Covid lockdowns, and other contentious issues its employees disagree with."

Whatever limits it places on content "should be shaped with surgical precision to give users clear notice of the boundaries and prevent employees' biases from infecting their enforcement decisions," Tedesco said. His index won't "penalize or reward advertisers" based on how they respond to Twitter policy changes, however.

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