Elon Musk and Twitter: A Censorship Double Standard?

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Social media companies have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic by rolling out new policies dramatically expanding their censorship powers. And Twitter’s handling of Elon Musk’s recent pandemic-related tweets reminds us that this surge has come with no greater visibility into the companies’ standards and decision-making process.

Over the last few months, Twitter has unveiled a steady stream of updates regarding COVID-19-related commentary it bans. In keeping with those changes, the company has removed more than 2,400 tweets for violating the rules and challenged 3.4 million accounts it believed were attempting to spam or manipulate the coronavirus conversation.

But what happens when highly influential public figures use the platform to tweet what would appear to be clear violations of these rules? The Musk case reveals an apparent double standard as the tech entrepreneur has repeatedly weighed in on the pandemic:

  • Despite Twitter banning tweets that describe “harmful treatments or protection measures which are known to be ineffective,” Musk has posted that it is “maybe worth considering chloroquine” as a treatment, even though the drug’s efficacy against the coronavirus has not been demonstrated.
  • Twitter also prohibits "claims that specific groups ... are never susceptible to COVID-19," yet Musk has tweeted "kids are essentially immune."
  • Twitter bans "denial of global or local health authority recommendations … with the intent to influence people into acting against recommended guidance," yet Musk has repeatedly denied the severity of the virus to his followers and has regularly tweeted that quarantine procedures are unnecessary and harmful.
  • While other platforms have removed a video condemned by some public health officials, Musk actively promoted it to his followers, offering that “docs make good points.”

To a most observers, these tweets would seem to violate many of Twitter’s new pandemic misinformation rules. To date, however, the company has not removed a single one, has taken no action against Musk’s account and has issued no statements criticizing his tweets.

Asked to comment, a Twitter spokesperson stated that “the tweets referenced are currently not in violation of the Twitter Rules” and emphasized that the company does not take enforcement action against every tweet that contains disputed information about the disease.

But that response evades the central question regarding transparency and raises another: Why does Twitter permit high-profile users’ questionable tweets to remain up while it bans other users for violating those same policies -- especially given the outsized visibility of tweets from someone of Musk’s stature?

As has become Silicon Valley’s standard practice, a spokesperson said the company had no comment on any of these questions or why it believes it does not owe the public greater transparency as it chips away at what was once Americans’ sacrosanct right to free speech.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.



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