Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) became the first presidential candidate to (poorly) announce his run for the highest office on Twitter Spaces late last month. And the governor’s connection to, and interactions with, Twitter are becoming more noteworthy beyond the live audio snafu.
The DeSantis campaign has been accused of co-opting Community Notes, Twitter’s community moderation and context-adding tool to benefit its campaign and discredit others.
Twitter CEO Elon Musk has pushed Community Notes as a way of promoting free speech on Twitter—allowing for much-needed context in the global town square—though it’s already potentially being used as a political battleground, with opponents claiming his favorite toy is biased.
The allegations were first raised by long-shot presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who went public earlier this month claiming his tweets were being hit with Community Notes by “the censorship czars at Twitter.”
Ramaswamy said that this is “throttling my tweet[s],” favoring DeSantis at his expense.
He’s not alone: Alex Bruesewitz, CEO of strategic consultants X Strategies, which is supporting Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential elections, said that “Community Notes is undoubtedly in tank for Ron DeSantis.” And @ChiefTrumpster, a self-proclaimed “investigative reporter” published a Twitter thread showing how they claim the DeSantis campaign weaponized the Twitter feature to hit opposition tweets.
@ChiefTrumpster claims that DeSantis staffers are flagging tweets to @NoteNeeded, a group of users with access to append Community Notes to tweets, some of whom @ChiefTrumpster claims are pro-DeSantis.
@NoteNeeded has a locked account, and it isn’t clear who is behind the profile, though some people have tweeted to distance themselves from the account.
By way of evidence, @ChiefTrumpster laid out a multi-layered conspiracy. They claim that Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ director of rapid response, tags @NoteNeeded on tweets she believes are incorrect. @ChiefTrumpster then claims a note is appended by a DeSantis supporter, which is rated as “good” by the @NoteNeeded team, validating it and showing it on said tweet.
@ChiefTrumpster claims that notes are written by an account run by a DeSantis-supporting political action group (PAC).
All three point to evidence they say shows that tweets posted by DeSantis’ opponents are being hit more frequently with what they perceive to be irrelevant Community Notes clarifying information. At the same time, the DeSantis campaign is highlighting what they see as the beneficial elements of Community Notes, such as clarifying what appears to be a misleading tweet by the Trump campaign showing a photograph of an empty DeSantis booth at a recent event.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on this story beyond its now-standard poop emoji auto-response. DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Pushaw did not reply to an email.
It’s not just DeSantis opponents who are being hit with Community Notes, however.
“One of the problems with Community Notes is that people can confuse them with fact checks, which they certainly are not,” said Steven Buckley, a lecturer in media and communications specializing in U.S. politics and social media at City University of London. “As the notes say, they are merely context that users think others might want to know. This language opens the door for political weaponization, as supporters of one candidate or party of course want users to see something within a certain context that is favorable to their side.”
Community Notes is designed to probe the veracity of claims on Twitter—though its success on that score is arguable. That it is being used to try and sway the center ground of facts in favor of one candidate or another seems like a misuse of the tool, but one that Republicans are increasingly convinced is happening to show DeSantis in a better light.
But whether the effort is likely to move the needle when it comes to campaigning is still up for debate.
Community Notes allow other Twitter users to add context to tweets they feel may be misleading or lacking important information. Users can sign up to join the Community Notes program, though simply joining it isn’t a guarantee your notes will be appended to tweets.
“Community Notes doesn’t work by majority rules,” the company’s FAQ says. “To identify notes that are helpful to a wide range of people, notes require agreement between contributors who have sometimes disagreed in their past ratings. This helps prevent one-sided ratings.”
Twitter doesn’t dictate which notes get shown, but users voting do.
“Community Notes has a broad-consensus requirement that is pretty difficult to meet so it seems unlikely for any one candidate to have supporters game the system,” said Rebecca Williams, who studies privacy and data governance at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Williams isn’t sure that campaigns would be putting their time to good use if they were trying to wage war through Twitter’s notes system.
Adding a note to a tweet doesn’t seem to boost its presence on people’s timelines, according to analysis of its source code, nor does it necessarily tamp down a tweet’s reach.
“It’s simply too slow and blunt a tool for misinformation when there are faster, sharper ones out there,” she said. “It’s much easier to post misinformation to social media than it is to remove it through Community Notes or add it via Community Notes.”
That could be an issue in theory, Buckley said.
“There is little transparency around who is actually writing Community Notes,” he said. “With Elon shutting out most researchers from engaging with the platform, there is very little we know about who the heavy Community Note writers are. [While] Twitter claims there are algorithms in place to make sure only the ‘good’ note writers gain exposure, we only have Elon’s word on this. Which isn’t great.”
Nor does Williams think that Community Notes will work for its intended purpose: to tackle misinformation at the source. “It is more likely that Community Notes will fail to correct misinformation on Twitter because consensus cannot be reached,” she said.
Still, even if the malicious weaponization of Community Notes is likely more in the minds of Republicans than reality, it’s worth keeping an eye on Twitter as the 2024 election approaches.
“I think social media and the people on it and its algorithms will certainly have an effect on the presidential election, but it’s hard to say exactly where and how. I would be surprised for Community Notes to have a moment of circulating misinformation, but I would keep an eye on how the confidence ratings are tweaked.”
She pointed out Twitter lowered how helpful they felt the notes were perceived as in April, meaning if DeSantis is using it as a tool, it’s one even the platform thinks is ineffective.