USA First Look

Washington Post launches Trump Twitter fact-checker: Will it work?

The Washington Post has launched a Google Chrome extension to hold the president-elect accountable for his tweets.  

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Ladd–Peebles Stadium on Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Ala.
Brynn Anderson/AP | Caption

More than a month after Donald Trump's Twitter-centric campaign ended in victory, The Washington Post has launched a new tool to hold the president-elect accountable for what he posts on his preferred social network. 

A Google Chrome plugin called "RealDonaldContext" will fact-check any content on Mr. Trump's Twitter page, and provide context for emotionally charged attacks on people, businesses, or institutions. 

"Donald Trump's primary means of communicating with the public is his Twitter account. Unfortunately, his tweets aren't always entirely accurate, by mistake or by design," the plugin's creators write in the Chrome store description. "The Washington Post's Fix team has decided to help ensure that the public receives the most accurate possible information by creating this extension, which will add more context or corrections to things that Trump tweets."

While the president-elect has said he plans to be "very restrained" on social media after his inauguration, since Election Day he has shown no signs of letting up, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month:

The business mogul's strained relationship with the press throughout his campaign, during which he temporarily banned a number of media organizations from access at his events and regularly railed against The New York Times, has some critics concerned that his strategic bypassing of the "mainstream media" in favor of social media could translate into a lack of presidential transparency and a heightened ability to push an agenda-fueled narrative unchecked. Meanwhile, others have suggested that Trump's heavy use of Twitter, if allowed to continue into his presidency, could provide a new kind of transparency, giving Americans the opportunity to engage with their leader in a more personal and authentic way.

Whether a positive or negative, observers say, it's undeniable that Trump's frequent and masterful use of Twitter to share his message directly with his followers has set a new precedent for interactions between politicians and voters – and, if he continues to tweet from the Oval Office, it would mark a fundamental shift in how the president communicates with the American people.

"One of the key variables here is traditional media, in terms of... whether media will sort of step up and more directly challenge some of these tweets," Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, professor and chair of political science at the University of North Texas, told the Monitor. "We're beginning to see early evidence that maybe there will be heightened scrutiny of some of his tweets. That may present a different environment for Donald Trump, and he may have to adjust. That’s the unknown." 

The Washington Post's new Chrome extension may be one sign of heightened scrutiny from the traditional media in pushing back against Trump tweets that are emotionally charged, exaggerated, or downright false.

Take, for example, this tweet from Friday, in which the president-elect writes: "Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?" 

"This is incorrect or false," the RealDonaldContext extension states in response, adding an explanation: 

Documents published after Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's email was hacked indicate that then-CNN-contributor Donna Brazile sent some questions from a CNN Democratic primary town hall event to the campaign in advance. When the chair of the Democratic National Committee resigned after documents stolen from the DNC were leaked, Brazile stepped in as acting chair -- after the leaks above. Both hacks are believed by intelligence agencies to have originated in Russia. What Brazile did, by the way, is in no way illegal.

While the tool has received positive feedback from some Twitter users, whether Trump's 17.5 million loyal Twitter followers, many of whom express distrust for mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post, will download it themselves is another story – especially at a time when fake news dominates social networks and "post-truth" was named Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

"Simply put, media bent on ratings and political parties bent on reelection at any cost have created a climate where many only believe sources that are aligned with the like-minded and they view the opposition as incompetent at best or the embodiment of evil," Daniel Fountain, associate professor of history at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., told the Monitor last month. "These are not new features within our electoral history, but it has been a long time since it has been this negative."