As of last month, Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against Covid-19 misinformation. That has raised concerns among public health experts, as well as social media researchers, that it would have serious consequences as it could discourage vaccinations and other efforts to confront the virus, which continues to spread.
“This is another example of Elon Musk changing Twitter policies to play to a specific audience,” said Roy S. Gutterman, associate professor of digital journalism at the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
“Maybe this is how (Musk) regards free speech absolutism,” added Gutterman. “This change underscores our duty to be skeptical about the information we receive through social media. But it will likely open the floodgates to all sorts of misinformation.”
Moreover, it may not just be entirely an issue of free speech for Musk. Rather, it could be about making Twitter profitable – especially as Musk had paid $44 billion to acquire the social media platform.
“Twitter is billions of dollars in debt, and content moderation is one of the big line items,” explained Dr. Margot Susca, assistant professor in the School of Communication at the American University. “It costs billions a year to police the flow of misinformation and disinformation, so Musk can call himself a free speech absolutist, but this is a guy who is looking at the bottom line.”
Controversy Could be Good For Business
It could also be argued that Musk isn’t just allowing the flow of such controversial content, but could be actively encouraging discourse on the platform.
“Twitter has been reinstating tens of thousands of banned accounts over the past few weeks,” noted Dr. Jeanine Guidry, associate professor at the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Even though not all of those individuals were banned for spreading misinformation, Guidry said that there was plenty that focused on spreading such content.
“These types of accounts could pick up where they left off,” she added. “It took a relatively long time before social media platforms started moderating content in order to prevent the spread of misinformation – this is a potentially huge step backward and one that could both affect public health and safety at different levels as well as add to an increase of toxic interactions.”
Those exchanges likely keep people clicking and encourage them to remain engaged. It is unlikely to change the minds of those on either side of an issue, but in turn, could allow the spread of misinformation and disinformation that could unfortunately have serious collateral damage.
“That is definitely an area of concern,” said Guidry.
Yet, recent disclosures do suggest that Twitter may have silenced certain opinions that were in contrast to the beliefs of its leadership.
“With Twitter’s policy shift away from labeling posts, Elon Musk is discovering how tight the tensions are that exist between pure freedom of speech and the repercussions of misinformation,” elucidated Amy Bonebright, assistant professor of journalism at the School of Communication & Digital Content at Liberty University.
“In the most recent release of Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ through journalist Bari Weiss, we see that Twitter had gone so extreme in muzzling free speech with little-to-no consistency or transparency,” Bonebright added.
The platform is not bound to free speech laws like the government, so a case could be made that Musk’s attempts at transparency and consistency in platform changes is a first step in the right direction, suggested Bonebright, who added, “The public will be more welcoming if they are informed of the guidelines and can trust that those guidelines will be applied properly and equally.”
Of course, in regard to Covid-19, others take the view that the spread of misinformation is a health concern.
“This is going to lead to health consequences when misinformation and disinformation are allowed to swirl,” said Susca. “It could turn the platform back into a sewer.”
Yet, as noted, that could still be good for Musk.
“In my opinion, this is purely an economic decision,” Susca continued. “I see the economic decisions that will result in health consequences.”