America’s politicians have turned out to be particularly adept at using social media to amplify their own messages, but they were not so adept at using it in a way that benefits everyone else.
In recent months, social networks have been forced to crack down on some of the bad actors that use the platforms to deliver false news to their favorite voters. Facebook and Twitter have largely been seen as bastions of truth and accuracy, but the latter got caught this week on the wrong side of a story that has been a political talking point for years.
The story goes like this: A website called “The Daily Caller” posted an article claiming that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the assassinated president’s nephew, recently renounced his Irish Catholic faith, which was found in his blood after he died.
The tweet with the story, from a user named Matt Welch, came on a Wednesday morning in September. The thread, the Daily Caller tweeted, read “John Fitzgerald Kennedy Is, In Fact, Catholic and DID Want to Become Catholic. Which Old Notre Dame Gurl Is He Now, Cousin!”
The Daily Caller, predictably, tweeted a link to the article:
What followed is a tick-tock of how The Daily Caller and others picked up and amplified the story before conservative bias caused Twitter and Facebook to shut down the report. (All of the outlets in this story are affiliated with The Daily Caller.)
The Media Research Center, which has an easily to search archive of social media posts and has published dozens of articles since 2016, noticed on Tuesday night that The Daily Caller’s Twitter account had been suspended. As a result, its Twitter feed was gone as well.
Twitter was asked on Wednesday if they had removed the account or had blocked the account in question, since the story had been amplified by other social networks. When the The Daily Caller’s account came back online on Thursday evening, as part of the company’s “war on bots,” Twitter told The Daily Beast that the account had been suspended but not for posting the story or supporting the article.
“This was not done for the post, but on Twitter we often ban accounts we discover from being automated, but aren’t the actual culprit,” a spokesperson said. “Twitter has found other users engaging in similar conduct.”
The same week, Facebook told The Daily Beast that it found posts from The Daily Caller and Business Insider using graphic images and language that violated the community standards. On Thursday afternoon, a Facebook spokesperson told The Daily Beast that it was removing the deleted posts from its servers and that “the quality of the content in the comments would indicate that it was created by human rather than an automated tool.”
The Daily Caller did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.
It’s worth noting that some stories on liberal sites have at least, at least, been discovered as being fabricated on a massive scale. Salon’s Twitter feed, for example, was flagged as an “account with certain accounts engaged in automated propagandizing” when a storm of fake stories appeared on Twitter around the election of Donald Trump in 2016. As you’ll recall, the articles turned out to be wholly false.
For years, the pattern has been the same. Regular social media users retweet stories about politicians, using some form of the passive voice, and then watching the news organizations they follow report the rumor as if it were true.
This week, however, social media platforms have more aggressively begun to punish the social network users who spread the inaccurate stories. BuzzFeed, Politico, The Guardian, and the outlets Business Insider and The Daily Caller all reported that Facebook was taking down their accounts and deleting their posts.
The Daily Caller’s Twitter account, it turns out, is offline, but its online archive has survived the purge. Its archives contain dozens of articles highlighting conspiracy theories and fringe claims. The majority of the articles center on the Democratic Party, including and especially Hillary Clinton. “The Politics of Panic in Trump’s America” from March 2015 looks at how Republican conspiracy theories around race relations have emerged and spread under Trump.