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Musk has “huge responsibility” to fight health misinfo on Twitter, WHO says

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presents a vaccine production device during a meeting September 2, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Musk met with vaccine maker CureVac, with which Tesla has a cooperation to build devices for producing RNA vaccines.
Enlarge / Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presents a vaccine production device during a meeting September 2, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Musk met with vaccine maker CureVac, with which Tesla has a cooperation to build devices for producing RNA vaccines.

Elon Musk has a “huge responsibility” to combat dangerous, potentially life-threatening health misinformation on Twitter, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The United Nation’s health agency commented on Monday’s news that the tech billionaire has struck a deal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion. WHO officials stressed how damaging misinformation and disinformation could be when it’s widely spread in digital spaces like Twitter.

“In cases like this pandemic, good information is life-saving,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said. “In some cases, [it’s] more life-saving than having a vaccine in the sense that bad information sends you to some very, very bad places.”

Katherine O’Brien, WHO’s Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, echoed the point. “This is not just a matter of chatter on social media channels,” O’Brien said. “It really has an impact on what people do, what they chose to do—what they chose to do for themselves, for their children, for their families. So, it’s something we take really seriously.”

Information war

WHO has long fought the spread of health misinformation and disinformation. In 2019, before the devastating pandemic, the agency listed vaccine hesitancy—primarily driven by health misinformation and disinformation—as one of the top 10 threats to people’s health. Amid the pandemic, WHO ramped up efforts to bust myths and fight the COVID-19 misinformation. It has described this era as suffering from an “infodemic,” which it defines as “a tsunami of information,” including false and misleading information, that sows mistrust, confusion, and risk-taking that ultimately harms health and prolongs or intensifies disease outbreaks.

“Thanks to new technologies, we have been able to widely disseminate knowledge and evidence on [COVID-19],” WHO wrote in December 2020. “However, social media platforms have also been the carriers of falsehoods and distortions.”

A US-based poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation in November 2021 found that 78 percent of US adults said they either believed or weren’t sure about at least one of eight falsehoods about the pandemic or COVID-19 vaccines. And a KFF poll from January 2021 found that people who got their vaccine information from social media were more likely to be hesitant or against getting vaccinated. Specifically, 37 to 40 percent of adults who were hesitant or against getting a COVID-19 vaccine said they got their vaccine information from social media. In comparison, only 25 percent of adults who were enthusiastic had received vaccine information from social media. In that survey, Facebook was the most influential social media platform.

Twitter has struggled to combat health misinformation during the pandemic and can be slow to update policies. A report in May 2020 concluded that the platform failed to reign in “superspreaders” of health misinformation.

Twitter’s future

Twitter and other social media companies have tried to refine their policies amid the pandemic. Some have partnered with WHO and other health agencies to beat back misinformation. “Many of the platforms that exist today have worked very, very closely with WHO… to try and improve the quality of information out there,” Ryan noted in the press conference Tuesday.

It’s unclear if Musk would consider partnering with WHO or other health agencies as he takes the reins at Twitter. Musk has made controversial comments on COVID-19, vaccines, and health measures amid the pandemic. That includes tweeting in March 2020 that “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and the falsehood that children are “essentially immune” to COVID-19. However, he has since tweeted his support of vaccines and publicly stated that he and his children are vaccinated.

In buying Twitter, Musk’s stated goal of protecting “free speech” and his definition of what that is, have many Twitter users fearing that he will open the floodgates of all varieties of health misinformation, among other things. Still, WHO appears to be hoping for the best while warning against the worst-case scenario.

“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,” Ryan said. “We wish Mr. Musk luck with his endeavors to improve the quality of information that we all receive.”

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