Twitter has abandoned its clumsy crusade against ‘misinformation’

Published on December 6, 2022


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Twitter recently announced that it will not implement a ban on “fake news related to Covid-19”. category loosely defined from claims of fact that are patently false, with plausible or verifiable statements that are considered “misleading” or contrary to the “recommendations of authoritative sources of global and local public health information.”

the policy change It was first noticed by users about a month after Elon Musk bought the company, in line with his commitment to lighter moderation and freer discussion. But according to Washington post“experts” warn that “this decision could still have serious consequences in the midst of a deadly pandemic.”

This fear has always been a reason to limit what people say about covid on social media, and it is by no means unfounded. For example, if false claims deter medically vulnerable people from vaccination or encourage them to use ineffective and potentially dangerous treatments, the consequences can be serious indeed. But the policy Musk left behind raises two intersecting problems: disinformation is an inherently nebulous concept, and private efforts to curb it on any platform are heavily influenced by government pressure.

Legal restrictions on Covid-related speech that go beyond well-known exceptions such as fraud and defamation would simply be unconstitutional. But government officials can achieve similar results by demanding that social media companies, publicly and privately, do more to prevent the spread of “misinformation.”

These requirements include not only stronger enforcement of existing regulations, but also broader definitions of unacceptable speech. Given all the ways disgruntled officials have to make their lives difficult through beatdowns, regulations, lawsuits, and legislation, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have strong incentives to comply with these “demands.” As companies adopt stricter moderation practices than they would otherwise, the result is proxy censorship.

That’s exactly what we’re witnessing after a First Amendment lawsuit filed last May by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. The revelations in the case revealed emails showing how social media company executives sought to appease federal officials by deleting speech they deemed a threat to public health.

Twitter appears to be particularly closely associated with government disinformation hunters.

A Twitter post from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 8, 2021 said:

“I look forward to regular discussions. My team asked for examples of problematic content so we could look at trends.”

Twitter was quick to respond to government censorship proposals.

A Twitter official said in an email to the CDC on April 16, 2021:

“Thank you very much for that. We’ve taken action (by tagging or deleting) Tweets that violate our rules.

The post titled “Request for problem accounts” concluded with “warmest” greetings.

That same day, Deputy Assistant to the President Rob Flaherty sent an email to his colleagues on Zoom about the “VaccineMisinfo Twitter Briefing.” Flaherty said Twitter will update White House staff “on the tangible impacts of recent policy changes, interventions currently underway in addition to previous policy changes, and ways the White House (and our covid experts) can get involved.” products”.

Similarly, Facebook quickly drew the line, especially after President Joe Biden accused the platform of “killing people” by allowing anti-vaccine messages to spread. Those criticisms were combined with praise for the companies that bought what the Biden administration wanted. “CNN notes that in an advisory to tech platforms, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy cited the Twitter Rules as an example of what companies should do to combat misinformation. »

This July 2021 notice, released the day before Biden’s manslaughter charges against Facebook, called for a “whole of society” effort to combat the “public health emergency” represented by “health misinformation,” including “legal and calls for regulatory measures. . Murthy’s definition of disinformation is disturbing in its breadth and subjectivity.

“Defining misinformation is a difficult task, and any definition has limitations,” the surgeon general wrote. “The main question is, can there be an objective criterion for determining whether something qualifies as disinformation? Some researchers argue that a substance must go against the “scientific consensus” to be considered so. ».

Others consider disinformation to be information that contradicts the “best available evidence.”

Both approaches recognize that what counts as misinformation can change over time based on new evidence and “scientific consensus.” This opinion favors the “best available evidence” criterion because claims can be very misleading and harmful even when the scientific data on an issue is not yet established. »

The deleted Twitter policy, which Murthy cited as a model, also deferred to the officially accepted consensus.

Company he said :

“We have expanded our understanding of harm to address content that directly contradicts the recommendations of authoritative global and local public health sources. We implement this measure in close coordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and we continue to use and consult information from these sources when reviewing content. »

According to this criterion, any statement that does not agree with official recommendations can be considered disinformation.

Twitter has expressly banned “statements intended to influence others to violate covid-related advice from global or local health authorities to reduce the likelihood of exposure to the virus.” It specifically mentions advice on mask use and social distancing, both of which raise scientifically and politically controversial issues, especially when the advice inspires regulatory action.

Can the benefits of widespread mask-wearing misinformation be questioned? (Yes, according to Twitter.) But what about acknowledging the effectiveness of properly worn N95 masks while describing commonly used cloth masks as ineffective? (Disinformation, according to YouTube.)

Questioning the scientific basis for wearing masks or social distancing in schools can also be considered misinformation if testing conflicts with official recommendations. Even claiming that the costs of lockdowns outweigh the benefits would be misinformation, as these policies aim to enforce social distancing.

Reasonable, knowledgeable people can and do disagree on these matters based on different assessments of the “best available evidence,” which Merty says is the key to distinguishing disinformation from acceptable speech. And what point of view is correct today may be different tomorrow. As Mr. Murthy acknowledges, “What is considered misinformation can change over time based on new evidence and scientific consensus. »

During the Covid pandemic, misconceptions about topics such as the usefulness of cloth masks, proper social distancing, isolation periods, patient intubation and the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing transmission of the virus have changed several times based on new evidence. If every deviation from the “scientific consensus” was considered intolerable, this process would be impossible.

Fortunately, neither Twitter nor any other company has the authority to enforce such compliance domestically. And thanks to the First Amendment, the government doesn’t have that power either. The Biden administration’s clumsy crusade against covid “misinformation,” however, is to curtail the diversity of opinion expressed on major social media platforms, promoting policies that equate all skeptics and dissenters with wimps and charlatans. Whatever one thinks of Musk’s other changes at Twitter, his refusal to participate in this project is a sign of hope.

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