Elon Musk’s approach to free speech could have implications for health messaging

Twitter has emerged as a key arena for public health messaging about COVID-19; but Musk’s own actions during the pandemic could undo it all

By Taran Deol
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2022

Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

Elon Musk’s free speech absolutist approach in his takeover and management of Twitter could have severe implications for health messaging. The microblogging site has emerged as a key arena for public health messaging about COVID-19 over the past three years. But the progress made on this front could be undone.

The direction Twitter will take in terms of how it manages public health messaging remains to be seen. However, Musk’s own thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic don’t offer any comfort.

He has been making false claims since the beginning of the pandemic, starting with a prediction in March 2020 about the COVID-19 outbreak coming to an end within a month.

This was followed by repeatedly undermining the gravity of the situation, and calling for revoking pandemic-associated restrictions.

Read What is Mastodon and why it won’t be a new Twitter

Musk also cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines and had stated he would not take the doses, adding that children are practically immune to the virus.

Such claims, regularly rebuffed by medical experts and scientists, point towards a worrying direction about Twitter’s future for those seeking public health information on this platform.

For many, it has become a key source of developments taking in place in our understanding about the virus.

The COVID-19 outbreak highlighted Twitter’s importance. Soon after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic, the social media platform committed to fast-tracking the verification of health experts’ accounts to fight misinformation.

The verification process has often been criticised for being opaque.

More than 1,000 accounts were reportedly verified in April 2020, within two weeks of the WHO announcement. While a blue tick doesn’t guarantee accurate information, it is a good indicator of how authentic the source is.

However, Musk announced users will now have to pay $8 per month for a verified handle, making such arguments null and void.

“This is a win if your aim is to dismantle the notion of expertise and create a free-for-all in which @FauciLied24’s voice is considered as valuable — or more so — than that of @MLipsitch (a Harvard infectious disease epidemiologist),” Carl T Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington tweeted.

This service was quick to backfire as several parody accounts of multinational companies popped up.

This included one of Eli Lilly — a pharmaceutical giant — which put out a tweet claiming insulin will be made free. This resulted in the company’s stocks crashing, given the treatment is one of its highest sources of revenues.

The WHO had also warned about health misinformation on Musk’s Twitter earlier this year.

Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO Health Emergencies, had underlined the importance of the stewardship of such platforms, hoping for “improvement of quality information” after the acquisition.

“Anyone who reaches a position in life where they have so much potential influence over the way information is shared with communities takes on a huge responsibility,” Ryan said in a response to a question during a media briefing in April 2022. 

“Even if academic Twitter ends up largely moving to (alternate platforms like) Mastodon, the big question is whether the general public will move there, too, allowing scientists to communicate with more than just each other,” a Science article noted.

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