Did you know that beheading videos, pornography and mask effectiveness charts from journal articles are lumped into the same category of sensitive information by Twitter? Neither did I.
For the past several weeks I have noticed my Twitter impressions diminishing, particularly when replying to others. Upon investigation, I discovered that, for any user who does not follow me, my replies were being placed behind a warning that reads: “Show additional replies, including those that may contain offensive content.”
In my replies, I had shared items such as:
- An NPR article noting that the viral load of the Delta variant was 1,000 times greater than the original strain, along with a comment that we should adopt what I termed a “vax-plus” strategy that adds masking and robust testing to ongoing vaccination.
- A February 2021 journal article stating asymptomatic airway infection of the vaccinated was described as persistent during vaccine trials and noting the potential for vaccinated individuals to spread the virus.
- A chart from a June 2021 study delineating the efficacy of surgical masks and N95 masks for wearer protection and source control showing that N95 masks are superior to surgical masks, offering the wearer around 95% protection.
- Information from a 23 July 2021 Public Health England technical report regarding Delta variant cases, hospitalisations and deaths by vaccination status, noting specifically that 48.7% of Delta variant deaths were among the fully vaccinated.
- The last slide from the Israeli Ministry of Health report displaying the waning efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine over a six-month period, noting that at six months the fully vaccinated were only 16% protected from symptomatic Covid infection.
Many will assume that it is only right-wing extremists or anti-vaxxers who have their social media accounts limited. I am neither. I was the 2010 Democratic Party nominee for United States Senate in Kansas. I understand that vaccines can improve individual health outcomes for those who become infected. But I also feel strongly that everyone should be fully informed about the limitations of vaccines and any additional approaches that may improve their personal safety, such as masks and testing programmes.
In an effort to determine why I had been placed behind the offensive-content warning, I contacted Twitter support on two occasions. The first interaction did not yield much beyond links to their rules. In the second interaction I was told my content was being labelled as sensitive, and was provided with the link to their definitions of five categories: graphic imagery (e.g. violent crimes), adult content (e.g. nudity, sex), violent sexual conduct (e.g. rape), gratuitous gore (e.g. beheading videos) and hateful imagery (e.g. a Nazi swastika).
Was I sharing content in any of these five categories? No—absolutely not. When I replied indicating I had never shared any content of this type, I received a response stating: “There is currently no way to appeal a decision by Twitter that permanently changes your account setting to mark media you Tweet as containing material that may be sensitive in response to repeated mislabeling of sensitive content.” But I was never provided with an example in which I had broken their rules, despite my request to be shown a tweet that was in violation.
Apparently it makes no difference whether you have in fact violated their sensitive content rules. Twitter can arbitrarily deem you guilty without any obligation to provide evidence of a violation, and render your account on the platform essentially defunct and nearly invisible to many others.
I was beyond flabbergasted to realise that Twitter lumps together facts about the Delta variant, Covid case numbers, scientific research about mask effectiveness and vaccine efficacy data with content like pornographic images and videos of rape or beheading. Why this is occurring is an important question to which I do not have an answer. I am uncertain whether Twitter has decided to adopt this practice independently or if it is a response to external guidance.
Several weeks ago in the United States, we were told by the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, that misinformation on social media was an urgent threat. Meanwhile White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, announced that the government would be taking action to encourage social media companies to remove certain content: “We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation. We’re working with doctors and medical experts…. So, we’re helping get trusted content out there.”
On hearing these assertions that people must be shielded from misinformation, I felt disturbed by the idea of government-led censorship. My hope was that this strategy would be used only in the most egregious instances, such as claims that vaccines contain microchips. However, based on my recent experience on Twitter, I now fear an unacceptably broad approach is being implemented in an effort to hide content that, while factual, does not align with the narratives of government leaders.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution specifies that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” In fairness, Congress has made no such law. The executive branch is simply stating that it will invoke its power to censor by fiat in collaboration with social media companies, on the pretext of a national emergency.
Given that the federal government enjoys the cooperation of the vast majority of media outlets, the fact that competing social media narratives are sufficient to prevent them from being able to convince the nation that their message is correct represents a significant problem with the message itself, the effectiveness of its communication or the credibility of their sources.
Of these three factors, credibility seems especially weak. Since the start of the pandemic, health leaders have made definitive statements that have subsequently needed to be reversed. First, early in 2020, they insisted the wearing of masks by the public was unnecessary, as it was not believed that the virus spread via airborne transmission. That was incorrect. The hypothesis that the origin of the virus was a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was labelled a conspiracy theory, but has now been deemed as likely as a natural origin. In late March, the current CDC cirector, Rochelle Walensky, announced that vaccinated individuals were unable to carry the virus, even though existing studies confirmed that they could both carry and spread it. The CDC later awkwardly walked these comments back. In May it was announced that vaccinated individuals were free to roam unmasked in most settings because they would not spread or contract the virus except in the rarest of circumstances. This directive has now been reversed again due to the rise of the Delta variant, as data have shown that vaccinated individuals may have the same viral load as the unvaccinated, and may indeed be able to spread it to others. The CDC says that vaccinated individuals should return to masking indoors. Even though some of these reversals were due to changing circumstances, the ongoing back-and-forth leads many to question the credibility of the messengers.
It has also become clear that leaders are disseminating misinformation—or, in some cases, disinformation—on behalf of those who know the truth but are making statements to the contrary.
In a 21 July 2021 CNN Town Hall, President Biden insisted: “You’re not gonna get Covid if you have these vaccinations.” This was a completely inaccurate statement. Vaccinated people have contracted Covid since the vaccinations began, and this trend is increasing now that the Delta variant is the dominant viral strain. Data from the Israeli Ministry of Health reveal that, at five months and six months after the second vaccine dose, individuals are only protected from symptomatic Covid at levels of 44% and 16% respectively. Meanwhile, a new study from Israel indicates that protection from serious disease has fallen to 80%.
It may be that this misinformation was conveyed accidentally as a result of inelegant delivery by the president. But this was a very dangerous statement, as it promoted a false impression that the vaccines are completely protective, and was likely to make many question and potentially resist the new announcement from the CDC that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors.
The CDC director declared that this was a pandemic of the unvaccinated—and was soon echoed by President Biden. A large number of health leaders and media contributors have continued to parrot this phrase. But case data from Israel, the UK and many other countries prove that vaccinated individuals are being significantly impacted. Israel recently announced that 60% of its hospitalised Covid patients were fully vaccinated. The newest Public Health England technical report reveals that 25% of Delta hospitalisations and 54% of Delta deaths have occurred in the fully vaccinated. Iceland has achieved a vaccination rate of almost 90% among adults, but still needed to reinstate public health measures due to a surge in Delta infections. Now that the Delta variant has taken hold in the US, there have been numerous instances of vaccinated individuals being infected, including the notable breakthrough infections in Provincetown, Massachusetts that were a central factor prompting new CDC guidance on indoor masking. It is clear that the Delta variant has produced a much more complicated landscape, in which merely the amount of vaccine that has been administered is a less significant data point. In short, it is false to claim that the pandemic affects only the unvaccinated.
In addition to being inaccurate, the narrative that the pandemic now only affects the unvaccinated has created division and hostility between different groups, which is extremely unhelpful given the many cases of shootings in the US, as well as violent outbursts in public spaces including airlines. I have seen vitriolic statements on social media by vaccinated individuals who are blaming the unvaccinated for the Delta variant, even though it was discovered in autumn of last year, before vaccinations were available to the general public. Even some in the media have engaged in blaming the unvaccinated. CNN host John Berman insisted: “If the unvaccinated aren’t to blame, who is?” We urgently need to promote a climate in which people work together rather than being turned against one another.
Some leaders have suggested that increased vaccination levels will arrest the surge in the Delta variant. After the second dose, it takes 35 days with Pfizer or 42 days with Moderna to achieve fully vaccinated status. It is obvious that new vaccinations, which take more than a month to provide full protection, cannot prevent a viral surge that is presently underway. Additional vaccines may indeed help more people to have better health outcomes if they were to become infected—but that is an entirely different claim.
Even in light of the recent announcement that vaccinated individuals are spreading the virus, that everyone should mask indoors, and that the efficacy of the vaccines weakens over time, the CDC director said in a 2 August 2021 interview on BBC World News’s “Asia Business Report”: “We’re focused on trying to curtail the cases here in the United States and getting people vaccinated is the best way to do so.” This statement can be deemed truthful only on the condition that her use of the word “best” was intended to mean most desirable from her perspective rather than most effective. But this statement will mislead many into assuming the latter interpretation.
A June 2021 study demonstrated that N95 masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission at a level of around 95%—higher than that offered by the current vaccines, which according to recent data from Israel now stands at 39%. At the same time, the leaked CDC slide deck published by the Washington Post notes specifically on slide 21 that “universal masking is essential to reduce transmission of the Delta variant.”
Moreover, the robust regime of testing, tracing and isolation of infected individuals implemented by New Zealand has led to much lower case numbers per capita than most other countries in the world, even though many have much higher vaccination rates. As of 15 August 2021, New Zealand has only given enough vaccine doses to supply 23.3% of the population but had only 39 active daily cases, which is the population-adjusted equivalent of approximately 2,585 daily cases in the US. As of 13 August 2021, the daily total of cases in the US stood at 186,840. Clearly, the New Zealand approach has been far superior even though it has dramatically lower vaccination rates.
Given the parade of misinformation and misleading statements that national leaders have recycled, it is astounding that they have the audacity to declare that the central problem is that of American citizens posting misinformation on social media.
Facebook was specifically mentioned as problematic by the White House. The president went so far as to claim they were killing people, though he later walked that claim back. However, Facebook is not a news outlet or media entity. It is a tool for users to communicate. Facebook’s choice to enforce community standards that prevent individuals from making threats or engaging in criminal conduct is quite different from an attempt to police the accuracy of all content for its billions of users. Facebook should not be responsible for the content created by users any more than WordPress should be blamed if someone creates a website with misinformation using their templates. The only legitimate conversation would relate to the algorithms that push particular content to users. One could make an argument that Facebook should not promote content that contains flagrant misinformation by intentionally placing it into users’ feeds.
Some of the fury currently directed at social media is because its tools allow people to communicate quickly and easily, which does not align well with the desire to limit users to sharing only government-approved information about the pandemic and vaccines. Many decades ago, we had no internet or social media. This made it much easier for the traditional news media to influence people, who relied on it almost entirely for information. Now people can easily conduct their own research and communicate with others from around the world. Information is power, and that power is a tremendous threat to those whose authority crumbles when the truth is shared.
Freedom of speech is supposed to be a hallmark of life in the United States. Censoring material merely regarded as undesirable by government is inconsistent with deep principles of our Constitution. Neither the government nor a private social media company should be able to decide what information a member of the public is able to evaluate for themselves. In short, factual information should not be obscured because it contradicts a narrative preferred by the state.