Twitter Pressured to Label COVID-19 Facts as "Misinformation"

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Originally published on by Natasha Hobley

In March of 2020, the global social media platform Twitter implemented a COVID-19 "misinformation" policy that would add labels and warning messages to Tweets Twitter administrators deemed to be "misinformation." Under this effort to censor certain information about COVID-19 and COVID vaccines that does not align with government policy, tweets could also be removed altogether after repeated violations of the corporation's policy. Twitter administrators stated they would "rely on trusted partners to identify content that is likely to result in offline harm."1

As a result, a number of user accounts were suspended in 2020 and 2021, including the 11-year-old @NVICLoeDown account of the National Vaccine Information Center that had been placed into a "lifetime ban" category.2

Fast forward to October of 2022. The new CEO of Twitter Elon Musk acquired Twitter and put an end to the COVID misinformation censorship policy, stating that he hoped for Twitter to become a mecca for free speech. He restored many legitimate Twitter accounts that had been suspended, including NVIC's account.3

Since then, Musk has also released a series of internal documents known as the "Twitter Files," which Musk is releasing with the intent of revealing "what really happened" behind the scenes with regard to the censorship of certain voices at Twitter prior to his purchase of the global social media platform.4 Documents that have been released so far cover a wide variety of topics, including lowering the visibility of certain accounts and the FBI's "government-industry" relationship in flagging certain accounts or political opinions.5

Internal Documents Reveal Researchers Pushed Twitter to Label Vaccine Side Effects as "Malinformation"

Last month, Twitter Files number 19 was made public. Entitled, The Great COVID-19 Lie Machine Stanford, the Virality Project, and the Censorship of 'True Stories', the released documents show that researchers from a coalition known as the Virality Project (VP) pressured Twitter to treat facts surrounding COVID as misinformation or "malinformation". These facts included descriptions of COVID vaccine side effects, including reported vaccine injuries and deaths, and criticism of mandatory COVID vaccine policies and vaccine passport systems.6

Stanford, NYU and Others Form Coalition to "Mitigate Misleading Narratives"

Per their Twitter bio, Virality Project defines itself as "a coalition of research entities" that focus "on detecting and mitigating the impact of false and misleading narratives related to COVID vaccines."7 The organization collaborated with Twitter in December of 2020. Research partners with the Virality Project include Stanford, New York University, and the University of Washington, among others.8

Virality Project worked with Social Media and CDC to Flag Content that Promoted Vaccine Hesitancy

The Twitter Files released Virality Project weekly briefings showing that the Vitality Project administrators continuously monitored content on a mass scale for several social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Pinterest. Screen shots from the Twitter Files show emails and reports that reveal communications from the Virality Project researchers encouraging Twitter:

to expand its misinformation policies to include true reports of vaccine side effects, criticism of vaccine passport systems for their imposition on rights and freedoms, and even discussion of legitimate scientific research on breakthrough infections on natural immunity.6

The researchers explicitly flagged true content if it promoted vaccine hesitancy, which included tweets about other countries banning certain vaccines. The Twitter Files also state that the Virality Project worked in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control to promote and implement these standards.6

Researchers Aimed to Shut Down Vaccine Passport Conversation

In one email to Twitter, the Virality Project researchers addressed the "vaccine passport narrative" citing concerns that they "have driven a larger anti-vaccination narrative about the loss of rights and freedoms" and framed it as a misinformation event. VP also stated that just "asking questions" was "a tactic commonly used by spreaders of misinformation to deflect culpability" and at one point contacted the Twitter team to "hone in on ongoing tactics and themes including an increasingly popular narrative around natural immunity."5

Government-Run Misinformation Surveillance Branch Shut Down

After about a year working with Twitter, the Vitality Project issued a report calling for the formation of a government-run misinformation surveillance agency to address "nationally trending narratives."5

On Apr. 27, 2022 under the direction of President Biden, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board. Only three weeks following the announcement, the Governance Board was shut down following intense scrutiny over its threat to freedom of speech.9

Twitter Files Journalist Says Digital Censorship Openly Focused on Political Narrative

Regarding the Twitter Files, journalist Matt Taibbi tweeted:

This story is important for two reasons. One as Orwellian proof-of-concept, the Virality Project was a smash success. Government, academia, and an oligopoly of would-be corporate competitors organized quickly behind a secret, unified effort to control political messaging.5

He went on to write:

Two, it accelerated the evolution of digital censorship, moving it from judging truth/untruth to a new, scarier model, openly focused on political narrative at the expense of fact.5

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1 Roth Y, Picles N. Updating our approach to misleading information. Twitter Blog May 11, 2020.

2 National Vaccine Information Center. NVIC Suspended from Twitter. May 24, 2021.

3 Fisher BL. NVIC Back Up on Twitter @NVICLoeDownThe Vaccine Reaction Feb. 12, 2023.

4 Picchi A. Twitter files: what they are and why they matter. Money Watch: CBS News Dec. 14, 2022.

5 Twitter. Matt Taibbi Apr. 1, 2023.

6 Britschgi C. Resesarchers pressured Twitter to treat COVID-19 facts as 'misinformation'. Reason Mar. 17, 2023.

7 Twitter. Virality Project. Apr. 2, 2023.

8 Virality Project Mar. 30, 2023.

9 Volz D. DHS folds disinformation board after criticism over threat to free speech. The Wall Street Journal Aug. 25, 2022.

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