Misinformation Watch

By Donie O'Sullivan, Kaya Yurieff, Kelly Bourdet, the CNN Business team and contributors from across CNN

Updated 11:21 a.m. ET, January 26, 2021
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11:40 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

YouTube's confusing response to video claiming Trump won the election and Democrats are 'tossing Republican ballots'

CNN Business' Kaya Yurieff

YouTube is letting a video containing misinformation about the election stay up on its platform without a fact-check or label noting that it is misinformation -- exposing the limits of what the social media platforms are doing to counter the spread of potentially dangerous false claims about election results.

In a video posted to YouTube by far-right news organization One America News Network on Wednesday, an anchor says, “President Trump won four more years in office last night.” No credible outlet has yet called the election for either candidate. The video also baselessly claims that Democrats are “tossing Republican ballots, harvesting fake ballots, and delaying the results to create confusion.” The video had been viewed more than 340,000 times as of late Wednesday night on the East Coast. 

While the video -- like others related to the election -- has a label on it saying results may not be final, YouTube said the video does not violate its rules and would not be removed. (YouTube has placed an information panel at the top of search results related to the election, as well as below any videos that talk about the election -- whether they contain misinformation or not).

“Our Community Guidelines prohibit content misleading viewers about voting, for example content aiming to mislead voters about the time, place, means or eligibility requirements for voting, or false claims that could materially discourage voting. The content of this video doesn't rise to that level,” said Ivy Choi, a YouTube spokesperson.

However, YouTube said it has stopped running ads on the video — while admitting the video has false information. “We remove ads from videos that contain content that is demonstrably false about election results, like this video,” Choi said.

The company said it did remove several livestreams on Election Day that violated its spam, deceptive practices and scams policies. 

CNBC was the first to report on the video.

The informational panel says election “results may not be final,” It’s also taking similar measures to past elections, such as promoting content from authoritative news sources in search results. 

The OAN anchor in the video shared the YouTube link to her personal Twitter account with the comment, "Trump won. MSM hopes you don’t believe your eyes." Twitter said that according to its policy on Civic Integrity, the tweet isn't eligible for a label indicating it might contain a premature call of election results because the original account has fewer than 100,000 followers and the tweet has not hit levels of engagement that would otherwise make it eligible. However, it was retweeted by OAN's official account, which has 1.1 million followers.

8:18 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

Viral 'ballot' burning video shared by Eric Trump is fake

CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan

A viral video that purports to show about 80 "ballots," all for Donald Trump, being burned is fake, Virginia Beach city officials say.

The video, which surfaced on Tuesday, features a man with a plastic bag full of papers that look like ballots, which he doused with a flammable liquid and set aflame. The person, whose face is never shown, claims the 80 false "ballots" are "all for President Trump" on the video. Though the location is not discussed on the video, the races on the papers are from Virginia Beach, Virginia.

However, the ballots are not real. The city of Virginia Beach said the papers are clearly sample ballots, rather than official ballots, since they lack the "bar code markings that are on all official ballots," according to a statement released on Tuesday afternoon. The statement showed an official ballot and compared it to a screenshot of the false video.

Christine Lewis, Virginia Beach's deputy registrar, pointed out to CNN that her office was quick to highlight the deception in an effort to prevent the spread of misinformation.

City communications director Julie Hill added that police and fire investigators are now looking into the matter.

Despite being debunked on Tuesday, the video continued to be shared on social media. The video eventually made its way to right-wing media sites like the Gateway Pundit, which posted a version of the clip on Wednesday afternoon. Eric Trump shared the video around at 3:40pm on Wednesday.

The version Eric Trump shared had about 1.2 million views alone. CNN found three other accounts that posted the same video that had more than 115,000 combined views.

Eric Trump shared the video by retweeting an account that posted it. The account Eric Trump retweeted has now been suspended, which means the video can no longer be seen on Eric Trump's feed.

The Gateway Pundit did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.

7:13 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

Twitter flags Trumps tweets prematurely claiming victory. Since polls closed, 5 of 9 tweets from the President have been flagged.

CNN Business' Brian Fung

Twitter flagged and labeled a tweet sent by President Donald Trump Wednesday evening that prematurely claimed victory in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and added a “disputed” label to a follow-up tweet in which the President claimed, without evidence, “a large number of secretly dumped ballots” in Michigan.

In a 16-hour period since the last polls in 2020 US Presidential election closed at 1 a.m., five out of nine tweets posted by the President have been flagged by Twitter. Many of the tweets received a contextual label after Trump sought to delegitimize the election process and made unverified claims of widespread voter fraud.

In a response to CNN, a Trump campaign spokesman said, "Silicon Valley continues its relentless censorship of the President of the United States." Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

6:41 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

How a Michigan election map with false information went viral and landed in Trump's Twitter feed

 CNN's Donie O'Sullivan, Mallory Simon, Konstantin Toropin and Annie Grayer, 

"WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?" President Trump asked in a tweet on Wednesday morning.

He had shared an image of an electoral map of Michigan that purported to show an unexplained jump overnight in the number of returned ballots in the state. The charge: According to the data in the map, 138,000 ballots had come in out of nowhere, and all of them were for Biden.

The claim had been going viral in parts of the right all morning. A headline on one right-wing website read, "Voter Fraud in Michigan -- Massive Dump of Over 200,000 Ballots for Biden All the Sudden Appear Overnight." At least 14,000 tweets had included the image.

The image was real. But the idea that it indicated fraud was absolutely false, though the people sharing it likely initially did not know that the data in the map was wrong.

The image was a screenshot of a map on the website Decision Desk HQ, which tracks election results and has powered results data for media outlets like BuzzFeed News. After Trump's tweet on Wednesday, Decision Desk HQ said there had been an error in the data it had been sent from Michigan's Shiawassee County. "Once we identified the error, we cleared the erroneous data and updated it with the correct data as provided by officials," Decision Desk HQ said in a statement to CNN. A clerk with the Shiawassee County Clerk's Office confirmed to CNN that that a typing error had been made when votes were being entered for Biden, and that the error was corrected within 30 minutes.

Read more here

5:57 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

DHS warns of fake media accounts announcing premature election results 

CNN Business' Brian Fung

Fake Twitter accounts impersonating the Associated Press sowed disinformation online Wednesday by attempting to call election results prematurely, prompting national security officials to issue warnings about the behavior. 

Screenshots of one of the accounts showed impostors appearing to call Michigan for Joe Biden. As of this write, the AP has not called Michigan for either candidate. CNN has called Michigan for Joe Biden. 

CNN was unable to independently view the impersonator accounts before Twitter removed them from the platform. 

AP spokesperson Patrick Maks tells CNN, “These are bogus accounts not affiliated with AP.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said it has witnessed multiple reports of social media accounts pretending to be legitimate news outlets calling election results, and that it had anticipated the tactic.

“Don’t fall for it!” tweeted CISA director Chris Krebs, linking to an agency guide telling voters that “malicious actors can use fake personas and impersonate real accounts.”

“Most media accounts on platforms will have a checkmark, so if they’re not verified, dig deeper!” Krebs said in a follow-up tweet.

The tweets mark Krebs’ first public warning of a specific threat affecting the current election. 

The accounts in question "were in violation of our impersonation policy,” a Twitter spokesperson told CNN. "They are permanently suspended.”

Twitter said it has not witnessed any large-scale attempts to impersonate media outlets but that it will suspend any account that attempts to do so.

5:50 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

Homeland Security officials say it’s not their job to monitor Trump’s social media

CNN's Geneva Sands, Alex Marquardt and Zach Cohen  

Homeland Security officials responsible for election security have repeatedly said, as recently as mid-day Tuesday, that it’s not their responsibility to address any comments made by candidates about the election. Since that time President Donald Trump has made a false claim of victory and claims of fraud before the votes were counted. 

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a press briefing Tuesday the department would rely on state and local officials to make sure that their ballots are counted. “We're gonna let the campaigns do what they do, and the folks here at CISA [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] are going to stay focused on their mission,” Wolf said in response to CNN’s question.

Asked Tuesday evening about the federal government’s plan for possible premature claims of victory by a candidate on social media, a senior CISA official referred back to the acting secretary. “I think Acting Secretary Wolf addressed this one pretty clearly and head-on this morning. You know, that's a campaign issue. We are focused on the cybersecurity aspects of the vote. And what's going on out there right now,” the official said. 

CISA Director Chris Krebs was asked last week about the president’s attacks on the validity of some ballots as he showed reporters the CISA war room where they would coordinate with partners to safeguard the election. “It’s not my job to fact check any candidate, certainly on the presidential ticket,” Krebs told reporters, according to the Washington Post.

CNN previously reported that when election disinformation comes from Trump, national security officials' hands are tied. None of the federal agencies charged with protecting the election -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among others -- have been empowered or seemed able to deal with one of the most serious election issues they grapple with daily when it's coming from the White House.

Meanwhile, administration officials have called for patience as votes are counted. “Voters should be patient while waiting for the outcome of this year's elections. Rest assured, however, our partners at the state and local level, are working around the clock to make sure that each vote is counted properly,” Wolf said Tuesday morning. 

Krebs has been leading the calls for patience for months. Krebs previously cautioned that results on election night are never official and that the volume of mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic will slow down the counting.

"Let's let the official process, the official results, play itself out," Krebs said last month. 

6:42 p.m. ET, November 4, 2020

Twitter labels as 'disputed' Trump tweets questioning election results

From CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan

Twitter labeled two more tweets from the President this morning as “disputed” and possibly “misleading.” The company has restricted how the tweets can be shared. 

In the tweets, the President baselessly questions the integrity of the on-going ballot counts in several states.

Three Trump tweets have been flagged by Twitter since midnight eastern. 

“As votes are still being counted across the country, our teams continue to take enforcement action on Tweets that prematurely declare victory or contain misleading information about the election broadly,” a Twitter spokesperson said Wednesday morning.

“This is in line with our Civic Integrity Policy and our recent guidance on labeling election results,” they added.

Continuing, “Last night, we took quick action to limit engagement on a number of Tweets that may have needed more context or violated the Twitter Rules. Our teams continue to monitor Tweets that attempt to spread misleading information about voting, accounts engaged in spammy behavior, and Tweets that make premature or inaccurate claims about election results. Our teams remain vigilant and will continue working to protect the integrity of the election conversation on Twitter.”

10:45 a.m. ET, November 4, 2020

Twitter restricts how Trump’s false election claims can be shared. Facebook does not. 

From CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan

Twitter and Facebook applied labels to posts from President Donald Trump overnight which included baseless claims undermining the integrity of the election. But the two companies have very different approaches, with Twitter taking far more punitive action against the President. 

As Trump continues to post online in the hours and days ahead, it is possible the social media companies will take action on more of his posts. 

Twitter labeled a tweet that Trump sent early Wednesday morning in which he baselessly claimed, "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election.” Twitter is hiding the tweet behind the label and restricting how it can be shared, including removing the ability for people to directly retweet the post. 

"Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about how to participate in an election or another civic process,” the Twitter label reads. 

On the exact same post on its platform, Facebook uses vague language in its label -- and, unlike Twitter, it is not restricting how it can be viewed or shared. 

In fact, on Wednesday morning it was one of the most popular posts on Facebook, according to data from Crowdtangle, an analytics company that Facebook itself owns. 

The Facebook label says: “Final results may be different from initial vote counts, as ballot counting will continue for days or weeks.”

Facebook also labeled another post from Donald Trump in which he said, "I will be making a statement tonight. A big WIN!" 

“Votes are still being counted. The winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election has not been projected,” the label says.

A Facebook spokesperson also pointed to a message the company is showing on the top of users’ feeds: “Once President Trump began making premature claims of victory, we started running top-of-feed notifications on Facebook and Instagram so that everyone knows votes are still being counted and the winner has not been projected,” the spokesperson said. 

“The winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election has not been projected yet,” the message reads in part. 

Of course, Trump and his supporters view any action that calls out or restricts his posts in this way as Big Tech censorship. 

2:57 a.m. ET, November 4, 2020

Twitter and Facebook label Trump posts

CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan and Rishi Iyengar

Twitter has placed a label on a tweet by President Trump in which he baselessly claimed "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election.”

"Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about how to participate in an election or another civic process,” the Twitter label reads. 

Twitter has also restricted how the tweet can be shared.

The same language was also posted to the President’s Facebook page. The social network placed a label on it that reads: "Final results may be different from initial vote counts, as ballot counting will continue for days or weeks."

Unlike Twitter, however, Facebook did not place any restrictions on the sharing of Trump's post.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: "Once President Trump began making premature claims of victory, we started running top-of-feed notifications on Facebook and Instagram so that everyone knows votes are still being counted and the winner has not been projected. We also started applying labels to both candidates’ posts automatically with this information."