On November 29 2022, a post to Reddit’s r/news claimed that Twitter had stopped enforcing its policy on disinformation and misinformation around COVID-19:
One month earlier, the platform had been acquired by billionaire Elon Musk. An October 27 2022 New York Times article covered Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, reporting that an array of “real-world consequences” could ensue:
After months of waffling, lawsuits, verbal mudslinging and the near miss of a full blown trial, Elon Musk now owns Twitter.
On Thursday night [October 27 2022], Mr. Musk closed his $44 billion deal to buy the social media service, said three people with knowledge of the situation. He also began cleaning house, with at least four top Twitter executives — including the chief executive and chief financial officer — getting fired on Thursday [October 27 2022]. Mr. Musk had arrived at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on Wednesday [October 26 2022] and met with engineers and ad executives.
The closing of the deal, which followed months of drama and legal challenges as Mr. Musk changed his mind about buying the company, sets Twitter on an uncertain course. Mr. Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” has said that he wants to make the social media platform a more freewheeling place for all types of commentary and that he would “reverse the permanent ban” of former President Donald J. Trump from the service.
Mr. Musk’s open approach to speech on Twitter could exacerbate long simmering issues of toxic content and misinformation, affecting political debates around the world. Early tests will come within days, when Brazil elects its president and American voters go to the polls on Nov. 8 for the midterm elections. Twitter said it would prohibit misleading claims about voting and the outcome of elections, but that was before Mr. Musk owned it.
The story referenced an October 27 2022 tweet by Musk, in which he asserted that Twitter “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences”:
On the morning of November 29 2022, public health expert Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted a screenshot about Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. Feigl-Ding urged followers to not leave the platform and thus “cede the town square” to users previously suspended under the long-standing policy:
Feigl-Ding also linked to a Twitter blog post (“Coronavirus: Staying safe and informed on Twitter”) which had a message at the top that stated:
Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.
A copy of that URL was archived on November 26 2022. The “no longer enforcing” message did not appear on the archived version on that date:
COVID-19 misleading information policy
You may not use Twitter’s services to share false or misleading information about COVID-19 which may lead to harm.
Even as scientific understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to develop, we’ve observed the emergence of persistent conspiracy theories, alarmist rhetoric unfounded in research or credible reporting, and a wide range of false narratives and unsubstantiated rumors, which left uncontextualized can prevent the public from making informed decisions regarding their health, and puts individuals, families and communities at risk …
A November 29 2022 CNN.com article reported that the policy change was observed by people on the platform rather than formally announced and posited that accounts banned under the policy could be reinstated:
Twitter did not appear to formally announce the rule change. Instead, some Twitter users Monday night [November 28 2022] spotted a note added to the page on Twitter’s website that outlines its Covid policy.
“Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy,” the note read.
Musk has promised to restore many previously banned Twitter accounts as soon as this week [ending December 2 2022]. It is possible that among the restored accounts will be some of the 11,000 banned under Twitter’s former Covid misinformation rules.
Claims that Twitter had stopped enforcing its COVID-19 misinformation policy were corroborated by the edit that was quietly added to the platform’s previously published policy, which had been last archived on November 26 2022. Sharp-eyed users spotted the change, speculating that accounts banned for spreading harmful medical disinformation could be restored. Musk did not acknowledge the discussion, nor did he tweet specifically about the policy change. However, the change to Twitter rules occurred nearly three years into the pandemic (after a lengthy period of consistent enforcement), and therefore was perhaps less likely to influence the understanding or behavior of most people already on the platform.