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Twitter is tweaking its approach to vaccine misinformation

The company is introducing a new strike system that could lead to some users getting permanently banned.

A blurry Twitter logo.
Twitter, like other social media companies, is contending with vaccine misinformation as Covid-19 inoculations roll out.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
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Like other social media companies, Twitter has banned harmful misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines out of concern that it could make people more hesitant to get inoculated. Now, the social media platform is adding more layers to its approach.

On Monday, Twitter said that posts deemed to be harmful misinformation will be subject to labels directing people to content curated by Twitter, public health resources, or the company’s rules. At the same time, users who continue to post such tweets will be subject to a strike policy. If a user posts too much vaccine misinformation and gets five strikes, their account could be permanently deleted from the app.

“Our goal with these product interventions is to provide people with additional context and authoritative information about COVID-19,” said the company in a Monday blog post. “Through the use of the strike system, we hope to educate people on why certain content breaks our rules so they have the opportunity to further consider their behavior and their impact on the public conversation.”

The new labels and strikes will be rolled out in phases. At first, Twitter says that labels will only be applied by human moderators, and will start with content in English. The idea, the company explained, is to train the social network’s artificial intelligence-based systems to make rulings on its own, a process that will take some time to develop. As Recode reported last year, Twitter’s automated labeling appeared to flag posts that weren’t misinformation because of keywords they used.

Labels and strikes for false vaccine claims are not the only new misinformation strategy Twitter’s working on. In late January, the company also announced that it was developing a new tool called Birdwatch that’s designed to crowdsource expertise and beat back false narratives in a Wikipedia-like forum eventually connected to Twitter’s main app. The company, as it has throughout the pandemic, has been trying to elevate authoritative voices, like Anthony Fauci’s, to speak on vaccine-related issues. It’s also working with the White House to clamp down on vaccine misinformation.

The new strategies to combat misinformation highlight how Twitter has had to adapt its approach as the nature of the pandemic has shifted. Last year, the company said it would remove harmful misinformation about the coronavirus and says it’s “removed 8,493 tweets and challenged 11.5 million accounts” since then. Twitter also started applying labels to Covid-19 claims — such as the idea that 5G cellular networks were somehow related to Covid-19 — that it deemed misleading but not drastic enough for removal.

Twitter’s “Get the facts about COVID-19” flag showed up on posts that were not misinformation, but used keywords that popped up in other false claims.
Screenshot from Twitter

Then, as vaccine candidates drew closer to authorization, Twitter announced in December that it would ban harmful misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines, following in the footsteps of Facebook and YouTube. The “most harmful” tweets, like those that contained vaccine conspiracy theories or false claims that could lead to physical harm, would be removed from the platform. “In the context of a global pandemic, vaccine misinformation presents a significant and growing public health challenge — and we all have a role to play,” the company said at the time.

How well Twitter’s new label and strikes policies will work in actually curbing vaccine misinformation remains to be seen. Experts have highlighted that not all content opposed to vaccines is framed in terms of factual claims, and experts have warned that simply taking down false information about vaccines isn’t always the best approach for curbing vaccine hesitancy. At the same time, as more vaccine candidates are authorized, we should only expect the variety of false claims about Covid-19 vaccines to proliferate.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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