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Policing Truth in the Trump Era

Summary:
Social-media companies’ only incentive to tackle the problem of fake news is to minimize the bad press that disseminating it has generated for them. But unless and until telling the truth serves the bottom line, it is futile to expect them to change course. LONDON – On October 6, US President Donald Trump posted a tweet claiming that the common flu sometimes kills “over 100,000” Americans in a year. “Are we going to close down our Country?” he asked. “No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” Overruling the Rule of Law PS OnPoint Susan Walsh/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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Social-media companies’ only incentive to tackle the problem of fake news is to minimize the bad press that disseminating it has generated for them. But unless and until telling the truth serves the bottom line, it is futile to expect them to change course.

LONDON – On October 6, US President Donald Trump posted a tweet claiming that the common flu sometimes kills “over 100,000” Americans in a year. “Are we going to close down our Country?” he asked. “No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

Trump’s first claim is true: the flu killed over 100,000 Americans in 1918 and 1957. “We have learned to live with it,” is a matter of opinion, while his claim that COVID-19 is “far less lethal” than flu in most populations is ambiguous (which populations, and where?).

There seemed nothing particularly unusual about the tweet: Trump’s fondness for the suggestio falsi is well known. But, soon after it was posted, Twitter hid the tweet behind a written warning, saying that it had violated the platform’s rules about “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.” Facebook went further, removing an identical post from its site entirely.

Such online controversies are becoming increasingly common. In 2018, the now defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was said to have

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