The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Musk is right to end Twitter’s fight against covid disinformation

Ye was knocked off Twitter after posting a picture that appeared to show a swastika interlaced with a Star of David. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
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Elon Musk has certainly kept his word about loosening Twitter’s moderation policies. On Tuesday, the company announced that it is ending its policy against spreading covid-19 disinformation. Public health experts reacted with alarm, issuing dire warnings such as it is “certain to get many more people killed from covid than otherwise would.”

This is a rather challenging time to write a column defending Twitter — not just because the company seems to be in chaos, but because Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, has chosen this week to test the outer limits of free speech norms. On Thursday, he sat down with Alex Jones to put the questions about his alleged antisemitism to rest — by saying things like “I like Hitler.” Shortly thereafter, his Twitter account was suspended for posting a picture that merged a swastika with a Star of David.

And yet I am going to defend Twitter on both counts. Nonverbal speech is always inherently more ambiguous than plain words, but it seems reasonable to interpret swastika + Star of David as advocating violence against Jews, especially if you’ve just been recorded saying “We’ve got to stop dissing the Nazis all the time.” Twitter quite reasonably has a policy against inciting violence, in part because if it didn’t have such a policy, Twitter would cease to exist as a company. Both users and advertisers would flee.

Of course this forces me to answer the question: How can I support cracking down on incitement to violence but not on virus disinformation that has killed people?

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Look, I spent the pandemic years arguing forcefully against such nonsense, often to the point of despair. I understand the temptation to simply say “Shut up and go away” rather than try to argue people away from beliefs I considered to be poorly evidenced and dangerous. I gave in to that temptation more than once.

Unfortunately, I now suspect this did more harm than good — and all the more so when it was official corporate policy rather than criticism from a frazzled columnist.

For one thing, moderators aren’t good at determining what constitutes actual misinformation. A lot of the dangerous nonsense about covid that circulated on social media came from the same public health experts social media companies were using as arbiters.

Molly Roberts

counterpointTwitter was — and is — broken

It was public health experts who initially told us masks don’t work, an assertion they knew to be false. It was public health experts who insisted, without good evidence, that covid wasn’t airborne. And many public health experts helped support prolonged school closures that have been proven to undermine learning.

That is not to say that public health experts are the moral or intellectual equivalent of quacks peddling balderdash about vaccine side effects. The public health community eventually recognized its most egregious errors, while the quacks doubled down. But free and open debate on social media assisted that process of course correction, and cracking down on what the experts then deemed false information would actually have slowed the pace of adjustment.

Moreover, the public health community’s many errors created a trust problem with conservatives, which made them almost instinctively reject anything those experts said. For some reason, the experts concluded that the solution to this problem was to get social media moderators, another left-identified group, to forbid conservatives from talking to each other about their suspicions.

This, of course, only cemented conservatives’ belief that they were the victims of a vast left-wing conspiracy, making them less willing to believe anything the establishment said. And when they were forbidden to state their beliefs on social media, folks like me could no longer publicly try to argue them out of it.

I cannot prove that all this cost more lives than moderators saved by preventing people from encountering the suggestion that vaccines will make your kids trans. But in any case, it’s hard to argue that their policy is still saving lives today.

The biggest problem with vaccine denial and other covid misinformation is in the United States, where the question has become politicized. But at this point it has become so politicized that it’s hard to argue social media moderation policies are helping. Vaccine holdouts already have plenty of arguments at their disposal.

Moreover, those holdouts are both fewer in number (79 percent of American adults have now had at least one shot) and at lower risk than they once were because, as of August, almost 84 percent of American blood donors had covid antibodies. The unvaccinated might still run greater risks than those with up-to-date boosters, but we are no longer talking about the horrific death rates that people were rightly worried about earlier in the pandemic. And I just can’t convince myself that marginally reducing that small risk is worth greatly enhancing conservatives’ belief that the establishment is trying to crush them.