Twitter Stops Enforcing Misinformation Policy on COVID-19

Twitter will no longer implement its policy against COVID-19, raising concerns from public health experts and social media researchers that the change could have negative consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to combat the still-spreading virus.

Eagle-eyed users noticed the change Monday night, noting that a one-sentence update was made to Twitter’s online rules: “As of November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer implementing a misinformation policy for COVID-19.”

On Tuesday, some Twitter accounts were testing new boundaries and celebrating the platform’s hands-off approach, which comes after Twitter was bought by Elon Musk.

“This policy was used to silence people around the world who were questioning the media’s narrative about the virus and treatments,” said Dr. Simone Gold, physician and leading investigator of COVID-19 disinformation. “A victory for freedom of speech and freedom of medicine!”

Twitter’s decision to no longer remove false claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines disappointed public health officials, however, who say it could lead to false claims about the virus, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

“Bad news,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who urged people not to run away from Twitter but to continue to fight the bad information about the virus. “Sit down people – don’t give them the town square!”

While Twitter’s efforts to stop false claims about COVID have been incomplete, the company’s decision to postpone the study is an abdication of its duty to its users, said Paul Russo, a communications researcher and dean of Yeshiva’s Katz School of Science and Health. University in New York.

Russo added that it’s just the latest in several recent moves by Twitter that may scare some users and even advertisers. Some big business figures have paused their ads on Twitter amid questions about its direction under Musk.

“It is 100% the platform’s responsibility to protect its users from harmful content,” Russo said. “This is totally unacceptable.”

The virus, meanwhile, continues to spread. Nationally, new cases of COVID are about 38,800 per day as of Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — significantly lower than last winter but a much lower number due to reduced testing and reporting. About 28,100 313 people with COVID are hospitalized every day and about 313 die, according to the organization’s latest daily estimates.

Cases and deaths had risen in the past two weeks. But a fifth of Americans are unvaccinated, most Americans haven’t received the latest boosters, and many have stopped wearing masks.

Musk, who has also spread COVID-19 misinformation on Twitter, has signed an interest in rolling back many of the platform’s previous rules aimed at combating misinformation.

Last week, Musk said he would offer “amnesty” to account holders who had been removed from Twitter. He also reinstated the accounts of several people who spread COVID misinformation, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, had her personal account suspended this year for repeatedly violating Twitter’s COVID rules.

Greene’s recent tweets include 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 the flood of misinformation about the virus, its origins and response.

Under a policy enacted in January 2020, Twitter banned false claims about COVID-19 that the platform determined could lead to real-world harm. More than 11,000 accounts were suspended for violating the rules, and nearly 100,000 pieces of content were removed from the platform, according to Twitter’s latest numbers.

Despite its rules against COVID-19 misinformation, Twitter is struggling with usage. Posts making false claims about home remedies or vaccines could still be found, and it was difficult Tuesday to identify how the forum rules had changed.

Messages left with San Francisco-based Twitter seeking more information about its policy on COVID-19 misinformation were not immediately returned Tuesday.

A search of common terms associated with COVID misinformation on Tuesday turned up plenty of misleading content, but also automatic links to helpful resources about the virus and authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, said Tuesday that the problem of COVID-19 misinformation is much bigger than one platform, and that policies to prevent misinformation about COVID were not the best solution.

Speaking at a Knight Foundation forum on Tuesday, Jha said misinformation about the virus has spread for many reasons, including official uncertainty about the deadly disease. Simply banning certain types of content won’t help people get good information, or make them feel more confident about what they’re hearing from their medical providers, he said.

“I think we all have a collective responsibility,” Jha said about fighting the spread of falsehoods about COVID. “The consequences of not getting this right – of spreading that information – are tens of thousands of people dying needlessly.”

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