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How can Twitter decide whether COVID news is ‘untrue’?

Even the scientists arent sure

Do masks help contain COVID-19? Right now the answer is yes, definitely yes. Sort of. Maybe. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are sure masks help. Now.

But in January, Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said during a briefing, ‘the virus is not spreading in the general community. We don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness. And we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus.’

And on March 1, 2020, the Surgeon General repeated that masks are ‘not effective’ and warned people to stop buying them lest they be in short supply for medical staff.

By mid-April, the CDC adopted its new policy that masks should be worn in situations where social distancing is not possible. 


The World Health Organization, however, is still ambivalent about masks. On their website they note, ‘if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19.’

To be charitable, we’re in a very strange time and it’s useful for everyone to admit that certainty is hard to come by. Experts will make mistakes and will ask us to adjust. It doesn’t mean the health officials are part of a conspiracy, it can just be a simple error. 

That’s why when Twitter announced this week it would start ‘alerting users when a tweet makes disputed or misleading claims about the coronavirus’, it was immediately clear it would become problematic. The Associated Press reported ‘under the newest COVID-19 rules, Twitter will decide which tweets are labeled — only taking down posts if they are harmful.’

So where, exactly, will Twitter land on the very important issue of masks? According to the AP piece ‘the company has been removing bogus coronavirus cures and claims that social distancing or face masks do not curb the virus’ spread for several weeks.’ They should let the WHO know. 

The problem with the site policing truth is that truth isn’t particularly evident right now and it shifts with time. 

‘People don’t want us to play the role of deciding for them what’s true and what’s not true but they do want people to play a much stronger role providing context,’ Nick Pickles, the company’s global senior strategist for public policy told AP

However Twitter is poised to do just that. And for many users, particularly conservatives, it’s clear that ‘true’ will be what is currently acceptable among liberal elites while ‘untrue’ will be anything that challenges that. 

It’s not only about masks. There’s a lot of data that shows that children aren’t very susceptible to COVID-19. But a recent outbreak of Kawasaki disease in New York City has health officials concerned it may be related to the coronavirus. ‘May’ is the operative word in the previous sentence. Health officials admit they are far from certain. Yet elected officials and their supporters on Twitter are passing around stories linking the disease to the coronavirus. Will their tweets be marked? It’s hard to imagine they will.

Twitter should focus on doing what Twitter does best: open discourse between many people of differing opinions. Their oversight should be limited to harassment, impersonation and outright threats. Disagreement is good, even in a time of pandemic. Twitter should foster it not clamp down on it for its own version of the truth.


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