Twitter Is Now Allowing Misinformation — And Risking Its Own Banning

Sam Westreich, PhD

Get ready for more COVID lies, as Europe readies the ban-hammer
This bird is not a doctor; don’t trust it on COVID information.Photo byPhoto by Alexander Shatov on UnsplashonUnsplash

There’s a lot of information online about COVID-19, but not all of it is accurate. Since this virus first started spreading, there have been a lot of false ideas and solutions shared for it. Some of these are shared out of ignorance, while others appear to be an active attempt to cause additional harm.

And few social media sites are able to match Twitter’s ability to amplify information. Like it or hate it, Twitter acts like a bullhorn, allowing a quick, short message to be widely shared with millions of people.

Of course, quick, short messages are not a good way to share nuanced, accurate information about COVID. Instead, there’s a bunch of incorrect statements, like:

  • Masks are useless against COVID
  • Vaccines are useless against COVID
  • The real COVID cure is horse dewormer, or drinking bleach, or prayer, or some other dangerous and untested compound
  • COVID isn’t dangerous to anyone who is healthy, or young
  • Once you have gotten COVID, you’re safe from ever getting it again

All of these statements are false, but people continue to share them.

To help combat the spread of misinformation, Twitter has put extensive rules and policies in place. Tweets that contain misinformation are labeled as such, and the content may be removed after review. Accounts that continue to tweet or share COVID misinformation are banned.

…at least, this was the approach, up until this week.

Musk cuts the misinformation policy

As of November 23, 2022, Twitter, under the guidance of its new CEO, has announced that it will no longer be enforcing its policy on COVID-19 misinformation. You can see the note on their policy page here.
Screenshot from Twitter's misinformation policy.Photo byBy author.

There haven’t been any formal announcements from the company about this policy change; the note was simply added to their policy page. Perhaps they didn’t want to draw attention to this update, fearing a negative reaction.

Up until this change, Twitter would challenge accounts when they posted disinformation. Since January 2020, they’d challenged more than 11 million accounts, suspending more than 11,000 accounts and removing nearly 100,000 pieces of misinformation.

But that’s now apparently going to stop.

Why would Musk make this change?

There’s a few different possibilities:

  1. Elon might not believe that COVID is as serious as the disease actually is. He has had COVID previously, and he’s repeatedly fought against California lockdown policies.
  2. Elon might be trying to cut costs wherever possible. He has been aggressively cutting jobs at Twitter in order to apparently stem the (self-quoted) “4 million a day in costs”.
  3. Elon has regularly shown the urge to meddle, and according to many insider reports, he is not very conducive to taking advice from others when it goes against his own viewpoint. He has shown overconfidence in his own expertise.

Elon has also talked about removing the bans on many accounts that he stated were banned unfairly, ensuring “free speech.” Many of these accounts may have been banned for sharing COVID misinformation; the free speech may include inaccurate, dangerous, and misleading health advice.

What will be the outcomes from Twitter’s decline in moderation?

At the moment, there’s still a lot of balls in the air, and it’s unclear whether Twitter will face any external repercussions for its changes in policy.

Musk has made claims suggesting that Twitter might have been in danger of being removed from the Apple app store, which would be a huge blow to its growth and reach. However, Musk appears to have walked back these claims more recently, stating that it was all a “misunderstanding” and is not likely to happen.

(Apple, wisely, has kept silent about all of this.)

But it’s not just other tech companies. The European Union is now commenting on the controversy, pointing out that they have strict rules on content moderation and threatening to ban Twitter from their countries if it does not meet those rules. The EU requires specific guidelines covering when users may or may not be banned, as well as independent audits. These rules tend to focus on blocking online hate speech and disinformation.

One third risky area involves the individuals Twitter likely cares most about pleasing at this point: its advertisers, the companies who are willing to spend money to promote Tweets and improve their reach. A number of large companies have paused Twitter campaigns, including car manufacturers like GM, Audi, and Volkswagen, and household names like General Mills and Pfizer.

In a recent blog post (November 30), Twitter has claimed that none of their policies have changed, but their own page reflects that this is no longer the case. They state that:

Our approach to policy enforcement will rely more heavily on de-amplification of violative content: freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.

Perhaps the misinformation will be blocked… unless it’s about COVID, in which case it’s fine?

Musk may be learning that change isn’t always good

Whenever a new manager comes in, they often want to revamp various processes. A fresh eye can sometimes spot inefficiencies or failures in process that were overlooked or ignored previously. Sometimes, fresh blood can fix antiquated systems.

But disruption can also cause plenty of problems. Changing a policy can have serious consequences, especially when that policy covers messages that have both a wide reach and can be potentially deadly.

Obviously, no one should be taking health advice from Twitter at all, at least not without doing their own independent verification. But hiding dangerous health-related misinformation can help ensure that people don’t get confused or steered in the wrong direction.

By cutting this policy, Twitter is putting its users at more risk — and, when the customer is always right, it seems like they are making the foolhardy mistake of jeopardizing their customer relationships and risking government ire.


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A microbiome scientist working at a tech startup in Silicon Valley, Sam Westreich provides insights into science and technology, exploring the strangest areas of biology, science, and biotechnology.

Mountain View, CA

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