If there was one subject that the establishment, be it the federal government or social media platforms, desired uniform opinion on, it was COVID-19. The latest installment of the Twitter Files revealed how the blue bird outlet rigged the debate surrounding the coronavirus and the world’s response to the pandemic. It was apparent in 2020, and it was confirmed at the end of 2022: Twitter and its partners labeled anything that countered the official narrative as misinformation. So, what did the latest information dump reveal about censorship, discourse, and intervention regarding COVID?
The Twitter Files: The COVID Edition
David Zweig, a reporter at The Free Press, became the latest journalist to participate in the Twitter Files saga. This time, instead of concentrating on the website’s cozy relationship with the FBI and the intelligence community, Zweig reported on the US government pushing Twitter and other social networks to promote specific content, suppress others, and ensure a particular narrative was being peddled throughout the COVID-19 public health crisis.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump and his administration were concerned about panic buying. Officials attempted to work with Big Tech to prevent runs on grocery stores by combating “misinformation.” The Trump White House had communicated with Twitter, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other technology firms. But the objective shifted when President Joe Biden arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with officials trying to home in on “high-profile anti-vaxxer accounts,” including former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson.
“In the summer of 2021, president Biden said social media companies were “killing people” for allowing vaccine misinformation. Berenson was suspended hours after Biden’s comments and kicked off the platform the following month,” Zweig wrote. “Berenson sued (and then settled with) Twitter. In the legal process, Twitter was compelled to release certain internal communications, which showed direct White House pressure on the company to take action on Berenson.”
Lauren Culbertson, Twitter’s Head of U.S. Public Policy, produced a summary of meetings with the White House that showed the White House pressured Twitter and “repeatedly attempted to directly influence the platform.” In addition, the notes highlighted that Biden officials were “very angry” that Twitter was not aggressive enough in deplatforming accounts, demanding that the company do more to rein in content that contradicted what the government and mainstream media reported.
At first, Twitter executives were apprehensive about adhering to the Biden White House’s requests, with many “debating moderation cases in great details.” Eventually, however, they succumbed to Washington’s pressure and chose to suppress views, especially those of doctors and scientific experts. But Zweig found that this process possessed three significant problems.
The first was that content moderation was performed by bots, which had failed to adapt to “nuanced work.” The second was that non-expert foreign contractors, like those in the Philippines, were tasked to assess tweets that weighed on complex issues, such as mask efficacy and myocarditis. The final issue was that high-level biased Twitter employees selected the inputs and decision trees and would “subjectively decide escalated cases and suspensions.”
“With Covid, this bias bent heavily toward establishment dogmas,” Zweig said. “Inevitably, dissident yet legitimate content was labeled as misinformation, and the accounts of doctors and others were suspended both for tweeting opinions and demonstrably true information.”
Indeed, many accounts were suspended “because they veered from CDC guidance or differed from establishment views. Zweig identified Dr. Martin Kulldorff, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, as one example, who had his tweet throttled for “false information” despite offering his expert opinion and sharing standard vaccine policy.
A tweet published by Kelley K, a public health fact-checker, was flagged as “Misleading” despite providing CDC data on the leading cause of death from disease in children. A bot initially spotted it, and then the tweet was given a manual human reviewer who still agreed with the label. Again, all the person was posting on Twitter were statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention!
Andrew Bostom, a Rhode Island physician, was given a permanent suspension for receiving multiple strikes for misinformation, despite discussing results that were published from a peer-reviewed study on mRNA vaccines.
“Whether by humans or algorithms, content that was contrarian but true was still subject to getting flagged or suppressed,” Zweig noted.
And then, there was a famous tweet by former President Trump. In an Oct. 5, 2020, tweet, Trump told the public that he was “feeling really good” and encouraged the public to not “be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” This had ostensibly perturbed then-Twitter Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker, who demanded to know why encouraging the American people not to be afraid did not violate the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. Yoel Roth, the former head of Trust & Safety, responded that “a broad, optimistic statement” was not misinformation.
In the end, Twitter leaned on politics, government pressure, and “The Science” to enact content moderation policies. “What might this pandemic and its aftermath have looked like if there had been a more open debate on Twitter and other social media platforms—not to mention the mainstream press—about the origins of Covid, about lockdowns, about the true risks of Covid in kids, and much more?” Zweig asked.
More to Come?
Twitter CEO Elon Musk confirmed that more information from the COVID edition of the Twitter Files will be coming soon, including a follow-up piece that features “leading doctors & researchers from Harvard, Stanford & other institutions.” In other words, bring the popcorn – and a face mask.
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