Under Government Pressure, Twitter Suppressed Truthful Speech About COVID-19
Twitter’s ban on “COVID-19 misinformation,” which Elon Musk rescinded after taking over the platform in late October, mirrored the Biden administration’s broad definition of that category in two important respects: It disfavored perspectives that dissented from official advice, and it encompassed not just demonstrably false statements but also speech that was deemed “misleading” even when it was arguably or verifiably true. In a recent Free Press article, science writer David Zweig shows what that meant in practice, citing several striking examples of government-encouraged speech suppression gleaned from the internal communications that Musk has been disclosing to handpicked journalists.
Twitter’s moderation of pandemic-related content was intertwined with government policy from the beginning. Even before Joe Biden was elected president and his administration began publicly and privately demanding that social media companies suppress speech it viewed as a threat to public health, the company’s guidelines deferred to the positions taken by government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And those rules explicitly covered “misleading information” as well as “demonstrably false” statements.
“We have broadened our definition of harm to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information,” Twitter said in a March 27, 2020, update. “Rather than reports, we are enforcing this in close coordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content.”
That July, Twitter sought to clarify “our rules against potentially misleading information about COVID-19″ (emphasis added). “For a Tweet to qualify as a misleading claim,” the company said, “it must be an assertion of fact (not an opinion), expressed definitively, and intended to influence others’ behavior.” Possible topics included “the origin, nature, and characteristics of the virus”; “preventative measures, treatments/cures, and other precautions”; “the prevalence of viral spread, or the current state of the crisis”; and “official health advisories, restrictions, regulations, and public-service announcements.”
That was a very wide net, potentially encompassing anyone who questioned the CDC’s ever-shifting guidance or criticized government policies, such as lockdowns and mask mandates, aimed at reducing virus transmission. While the intent requirement ostensibly allowed dissent as long as it was not aimed at influencing behavior, that limitation did not mean much in practice, since moderators were apt to infer the requisite intent when they encountered tweets that implicitly or explicitly deviated from the recommendations of “public health authorities and governments.”
The “assertion of fact” requirement likewise proved malleable, since it applied even to true statements that were viewed as undermining compliance with those recommendations. And contrary to what Twitter’s official rules said, even expressions of opinion could prompt action against tweets or users.
Consider a March 15, 2021, tweet in which the epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff responded to the question of whether “younger age groups” or people who had already been infected by COVID-19 “need to be vaccinated.” Kulldorff’s response: “No. Thinking that everyone should be vaccinated is as scientifically flawed as thinking that nobody should. COVID vaccines are important for older high-risk people, and their care-takers. Those with prior natural infection do not need it. Nor children.”
Zweig reports that “internal emails show an ‘intent to action’ by a Twitter moderator, saying Kulldorff’s tweet violated the company’s Covid-19 misinformation policy” and claiming “he shared ‘false information.'” But as Zweig notes, “Kulldorff’s statement was an expert’s opinion—one that happened to be in line with vaccine policies in numerous other countries.”
Kulldorff’s tweet nevertheless “was deemed ‘false information’ by Twitter moderators merely because it differed from CDC guidelines,” Zweig writes. “After Twitter took action, Kulldorff’s tweet was slapped with a ‘misleading’ label and all replies and likes were shut off, throttling the tweet’s ability to be seen and shared by others, a core function of the platform.”
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