THE GUARDIAN – As the troubled social media platform Twitter rolled out a paid verification system and laid off thousands of content moderators, health misinformation accounts on the social network began pushing their messages to a wider audience than ever.
Under Elon Musk’s new direction for Twitter, several anti-vaccine accounts with tens of thousands of followers are now verified by paying $7.99 a month for Twitter Blue.
Social media sites have long struggled with misleading information and content moderation.
“There’s always been misinformation on the platforms,” said Sarah Barry, a vaccine advocate. Social media companies “only respond when something gets reported on, but they’re not actually proactively watching these groups”, she said.
Some tools, like verification on Twitter, were meant to address impersonation on the platform by verifying the identities of government officials, public agencies, celebrities, journalists and others.
“By verifying this anti-vaccine account, they’re kind of verifying all of the misinformation it shares … it makes people think, ‘Oh, well, this is a verified account. This must be true.’”
But the tools are now being used to create a false sense of validity in order to spread dangerous falsehoods, including about vaccines. And groups on other platforms, like Facebook, continue to circumvent moderation by making minor changes to their names and the terms they use to promote anti-vaccine agendas.
Verified accounts are frequently seen as reliable and trustworthy, and Twitter’s algorithm gives them a higher ranking in search results, replies and follow recommendations.
“There’s a sense of legitimacy that comes with it,” said Barry.
Before the change in leadership, Twitter was working to remove some accounts that spread anti-vaccine disinformation.
But “now it looks like Twitter’s giving these accounts some legitimacy”, said Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist and dean of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“It looks like now they’re going to move in the wrong direction, and actually help promote groups that are touting anti-vaccine, anti-science disinformation … ”