Following news of Elon Musk’s potential Twitter takeover, chiefs at the World Health Organization (WHO) have doubled down on their warning about the spreading of COVID-19 misinformation and stressed the “huge responsibility” that comes with running a major social media platform.
When asked about Musk’s Twitter deal at a virtual media conference on April 26, Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, highlighted the need to ensure people have access to accurate health information, especially during a pandemic or crisis situation.
“In cases like this pandemic, good information is life-saving. It’s even as life-saving, and in some cases, more life-saving than having a vaccine in the sense that bad information sends you to some very, very bad places,” said Dr Ryan.
“We work extremely closely with our communities to try and pass the best possible information but certainly when anybody takes on a new task, when anyone reaches a position in life where they have so much potential influence over the way information is shared with communities, they take on a huge responsibility and we wish Mr Musk luck with his endeavors to improve the quality of information that we all receive."
However, Ryan noted that it’s ultimately not the concern of the WHO who’s running Twitter.
“There is misinformation and disinformation out there all across whatever platform you wish to go to. Good stewardship of those platforms is extremely important. It’s not the business of WHO who owns or who manages those platforms,” he added.
Many of the big social media platforms, including Twitter, have taken a fresh look at the way they manage information in the wake of COVID-19 and the torrent of disinformation it brought up. In March 2021, Twitter announced it would expand its use of a “strike system” and add warning labels on tweets that contain misleading information about COVID vaccines.
Musk, a purported free speech absolutist, has set out a new vision of Twitter with a strong emphasis on “free speech” and (what he considers) less of a “left-wing bias”. Shortly after news of the deal was released, Musk tweeted: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
It remains unclear where and how this vision of an open "digital town square" fits into the issue of spreading misinformation about COVID-19, vaccines, and other science- and health-related issues.
Musk, a prominent figure on Twitter with over 87 million followers, has himself been accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 on the platform. In March 2020, he infamously tweeted: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” Speaking about COVID-19 just two weeks later, he added: “Based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.”
It turned out, that prediction was just a little off the mark.