Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against misinformation about COVID-19, raising concerns among public health experts and social media researchers that the change could have serious consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to fight against the virus which is still spreading.
Eagle-eyed users spotted the change on Monday evening, noting that a one-sentence update had been made to Twitter’s Online Rules: “As of November 23, 2022, Twitter no longer enforces the policy. misleading COVID-19 information.
On Tuesday, some Twitter accounts were testing the new boundaries and celebrating the platform’s hands-off approach, which comes after Elon Musk took over Twitter.
“This policy was used to silence people around the world who questioned the media narrative surrounding the virus and treatment options,” tweeted Dr. Simone Gold, physician and leading purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation. “A victory for freedom of expression and medical freedom!”
Twitter’s decision to no longer remove false claims about COVID-19 vaccine safety, however, disappointed public health officials, who said it could lead to more false claims about the virus, or about safety and the effectiveness of vaccines.
“Bad news,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who urged people not to flee Twitter but to continue the fight against misinformation about the virus. “Stay guys – do NOT give them town square!”
While Twitter’s efforts to stop false claims about COVID were flawed, the company’s decision to reverse course is an abdication of its duty to its users, said social media researcher Paul Russo and dean of the Katz School of Science and Health at Yeshiva. New York University.
Russo added that this is the latest of several recent moves by Twitter that could ultimately scare off some users and even advertisers. Some big names in the business world have already suspended their ads on Twitter due to questions about its leadership under Musk.
“The platform is 100% responsible for protecting its users from harmful content,” Russo said. “It is absolutely unacceptable.”
The virus, meanwhile, continues to spread. Nationally, new COVID cases averaged nearly 38,800 a day on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — far fewer than last winter, but a vast undercount in due to reduced testing and reporting. About 28,100 people with COVID have been hospitalized daily and about 313 have died, according to the most recent federal daily averages.
Cases and deaths increased from two weeks earlier. Yet one-fifth of the US population has not been vaccinated, most Americans have not received the latest boosters, and many have stopped wearing masks.
Musk, who has himself spread misinformation about COVID on Twitter, has shown interest in rolling back many of the platform’s previous rules meant to tackle misinformation.
Last week, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” to account holders who had been kicked out of Twitter. It also reinstated the accounts of several people who spread misinformation about COVID, including that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal account was suspended this year for repeatedly breaking Twitter’s COVID rules.
Greene’s most recent tweets include those questioning the effectiveness of masks and making baseless claims about the safety of COVID vaccines.
Since the start of the pandemic, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have struggled to respond to a torrent of misinformation about the virus, its origins and the response to it.
Under the policy enacted in January 2020, Twitter prohibited false claims regarding COVID-19 that the platform determined could result in actual harm. More than 11,000 accounts have been suspended for breaking the rules and nearly 100,000 pieces of content have been removed from the platform, according to the latest figures from Twitter.
Despite its rules banning misinformation about COVID, Twitter has struggled to enforce the law. Posts making false claims about home remedies or vaccines could still be found, and it was difficult on Tuesday to pinpoint exactly how the platform’s rules may have changed.
Messages left with San Francisco-based Twitter asking for more information about its COVID-19 misinformation policy were not immediately returned on Tuesday.
A search for common terms associated with COVID misinformation on Tuesday yielded a lot of misleading content, but also automatic links to helpful resources on the virus as well as authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said on Tuesday that the problem of COVID-19 misinformation is much bigger than a platform and that policies prohibiting COVID misinformation n weren’t the best solution anyway.
Speaking at a Knight Foundation forum on Tuesday, Jha said misinformation about the virus spreads for a number of reasons, including legitimate uncertainty about a deadly disease. Simply banning certain types of content isn’t going to help people find good information, or make them more confident about what they’re hearing from their medical providers, he said.
“I think we all have a collective responsibility,” Jha said of tackling COVID misinformation. “The consequences of not getting it right – of spreading this misinformation – are literally tens of thousands of people dying unnecessarily.”