Under the leadership of billionaire Elon Musk, social media platform Twitter has abandoned its efforts to prevent the spread of dangerous COVID-19 misinformation on its platform, dismaying experts who say false and misleading health information can harm individuals and put lives at risk.
“Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy,” the company noted in various places on its website.
From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health responses have been severely stymied by a plague of misinformation, often in digital spaces.
At the end of 2020, the World Health Organization put out a call to action to address what it called the “infodemic,” which aimed to “mitigate harm from health misinformation” that can cause confusion, mistrust, harmful risk-taking behaviors, and can prolong and intensify disease outbreaks. WHO started a myth-busting campaign to try to fight back against misinformation, producing advisories clarifying that medical masks do not cause oxygen deprivation, and drinking bleach does not prevent COVID-19 but will certainly harm you.
In a press briefing earlier this year, Katherine O’Brien, WHO’s director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, noted that false and misleading information on social media is not innocuous. “This is not just a matter of chatter on social media channels,” O’Brien said. “It really has an impact on what people do, what they choose to do—what they choose to do for themselves, for their children, for their families. So, it’s something we take really seriously.”
But the problem has been tenacious and has hamstrung health responses, likely exacerbating the pandemic’s toll of disease and death. In January 2021, a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that adults who were hesitant about getting vaccinated or against it entirely were more likely to say they got their vaccine information from social media than other information sources. In November, another KFF poll found that 78 percent of US adults either believed or weren’t sure about at least one of eight falsehoods about the pandemic or COVID-19 vaccines.
Much of the misinformation has been amplified in the US by Republican politicians, leading to divergent health outcomes along party lines. A study in February of this year found Republican political affiliation was linked to increased prescribing of the ineffective COVID-19 treatments hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. And partisan spread of misinformation has cost lives. A study in June found that counties with a majority of Republican voters experienced 72.9 additional COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people relative to majority-Democratic counties in the first two years of the pandemic, and COVID-19 vaccine uptake explained approximately 10 percent of the difference.
“In cases like this pandemic, good information is life-saving,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said in a press conference earlier this year. “In some cases, [it’s] more life-saving than having a vaccine in the sense that bad information sends you to some very, very bad places.”
Amid the misinformation plague, Twitter began ramping up efforts in 2020 to address the scourge on its platform, unveiling new policies that challenged accounts, removed false or misleading content, annotated potentially misleading content, and banned violating accounts. In September 2022, prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter boasted that enforcement of its COVID-19 misinformation policy led it to challenge 11.72 million accounts, suspend 11,230 accounts, and remove 97,674 pieces of content since 2020.
The continued enforcement of its misinformation policies would “ensure that users can readily find credible information during this critical phase” of the pandemic, the company wrote.
But under Musk, the company’s priorities have clearly changed. Musk himself has a murky relationship with COVID-related health misinformation. In March 2020, he tweeted that “the coronavirus panic is dumb,” as well as the falsehood that children are “essentially immune” to COVID-19. However, he later tweeted support of vaccines.
Yesterday, Musk manufactured a skirmish with Apple after claiming that the tech giant had “mostly stopped” advertising on Twitter and threatened to pull Twitter’s app from its App Store. Musk accused Apple of hating free speech and of “censorship” after a Twitter user alleged that Apple filtered app search terms related to COVID-19.
The devolution of credible content and discourse on Twitter is likely to spur yet more concern from health officials over misinformation on social media platforms.
“When anyone reaches a position in life where they have so much potential influence over the way information is shared with communities, they take on a huge responsibility,” WHO’s Mike Ryan said earlier this year, referring to Musk’s upcoming takeover of Twitter. “We wish Mr. Musk luck with his endeavors to improve the quality of information that we all receive.”