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Musk scraps Twitter’s Covid misinformation policy

Elon Musk Twitter - Saul Martinez/Getty Images
Elon Musk Twitter - Saul Martinez/Getty Images

Elon Musk has scrapped Twitter’s Covid-19 misinformation policy as he vows to make the site a free speech champion.

A web page detailing Twitter's Covid policy now redirects to a generic help page and a notice on its website reads: “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.”

Under the now defunct approach, Twitter had promised to delete “content that is demonstrably false or misleading and may lead to significant risk of harm (such as increased exposure to the virus, or adverse effects on public health systems)”.

The policy was introduced in 2020 amid fears that false information spreading online could put people in danger. Former digital health secretary Oliver Dowden said “Covid disinformation is dangerous and could cost lives” in November 2020, after reaching an agreement with Twitter and other tech giants to curb its spread online.

The decision to scrap the policy comes as Mr Musk tries to make Twitter a bastion of free speech, rolling back what he saw at the censorious approach of many social media companies.

Opponents have accused him of slashing and burning safeguards that prevent harmful and misleading information circulating on Twitter. More than 5,000 staff have departed Twitter over the last four weeks through a combination of compulsory redundancies and resignations after the billionaire entrepreneur acquired the platform at the end of October.

On Monday, Mr Musk started a public spat with Apple and its chief executive Tim Cook, suggesting they “hate free speech in America” and accusing Apple of threatening to block the social media app for its app store.

The maker of the Fortnite series of games defended Mr Musk’s stance on Tuesday. Tim Sweeney, the chief executive of Epic Games, which makes the hugely successful Fortnite series, called Apple “a menace to freedom worldwide”. Apple and Epic have been involved in a legal spat over the iPhone’s App Store since 2019.

Mr Musk has pledged to reinstate large numbers of Twitter users banned under the site’s previous management and has already reinstated former US President Donald Trump. Mr Trump was accused of spreading Covid misinformation after some of his followers decided to drink bleach and take hydroxychloroquine, a medicine most commonly used as a horse tranquiliser, to treat the virus. Mr Trump suggested both could be effective.

Most Covid-specific misinformation stems from a distrust of vaccines developed to tackle the virus. Mr Musk has said he supports vaccines, saying last year: “To be clear, I do support vaccines in general & covid vaccines specifically. The science is unequivocal.”

The US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthi, previously hailed Twitter's Covid-19 rules for helping reduce “the distribution of false or misleading posts and directing users to health information from credible sources” and cited them as an example for other social media sites to follow.

Professor Harith Alani, director of the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute who specialises in tracking online misinformation, said: “It is highly likely that many more accounts will now engage in spreading such misinformation since they know they won’t be blocked by Twitter.”

Other, more generalised policies on posting deliberately false or misleading information on Twitter are still listed on the company's website and appear to be being enforced.