Twitter’s decision to stop enforcing COVID-19 misinformation policy is irresponsible, dangerous

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Twitter recently made the irresponsible decision to stop enforcing its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. This decision is especially disappointing in light of Twitter’s formerly laudable efforts to protect its users from health misinformation.

In a 2021 report, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy cited Twitter as an example of a social media platform that had made significant efforts to address health misinformation. But sharp-eyed Twitter users recently noticed that the platform had quietly revised its online rules to state that “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy” — an apparent abdication of Twitter’s responsibility to protect users from potentially harmful content.

Misinformation has been a persistent problem throughout the pandemic. Early on, there were claims that COVID-19 was a hoax or was not serious. When COVID-19 vaccines became available, there were unfounded rumors that they would affect fertility, place microchips in the body for tracking purposes, or make the body magnetic. And various treatments, drugs and strategies have been touted as effective against COVID-19 despite evidence showing them to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst.

Twitter’s abandonment of efforts to remove or flag COVID-19 misinformation opens the floodgates for snake oil salesmen at a time when people experiencing long COVID-19 are increasingly desperate for anything that will help. Millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Arkansas — 5% to 10% of all those who have had COVID-19 — are struggling with long COVID. Twitter has effectively signaled to charlatans that it is open season on this vulnerable population.

How impactful has COVID-19 misinformation been in Arkansas? The most obvious example is the rise of ivermectin. An analysis by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement showed that prescription claims for the antiparasitic drug increased in the state at a time when misinformation about the drug’s supposed effectiveness in combating COVID-19 was widespread. In fact, multiple clinical trials have shown that ivermectin is not effective in preventing or treating COVID-19.

Misinformation is also surely a factor in Arkansas’ low vaccination rate. Only 57% of Arkansans have completed a COVID-19 primary vaccine series (two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), compared to the national rate of 69%. Only 70% of Arkansans have received any COVID-19 vaccine dose, compared to 81% nationally. Arkansas’ low vaccination uptake has had a tragic cost: The state’s per-capita COVID-19 death rate is 417 per 100,000 people, the sixth-highest rate in the nation. Arkansas has logged more than 12,000 COVID-19 deaths, and of the deaths that occurred after vaccines became available, the vast majority have been preventable.

I understand the desire for open debate, but when it comes to people’s health, the information they receive will influence decisions that can make a difference between life and death. Social media platforms have a responsibility to at least attempt to protect their users from harm, and thankfully other platforms have recognized this.

I strongly urge everyone not to use Twitter for health information and to be on guard against misinformation. Before you share something with your friends, family or social media followers, make sure it is from a trustworthy source. Check to see where the evidence is and what other sources are saying about it. Do not equate likes and shares on social media posts with credibility. You may find fact-checking sites such as Snopes,  FactCheck.orgPolitiFact or NewsGuard helpful. The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement has more tips and resources on our website.

If that sounds like a lot, here is an easy rule: If in doubt, don’t share.

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Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement
Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement

Joe Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., is president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and was Arkansas’ surgeon general under Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe.