Twitter, Dictatorships, and Double Standards

POLITICS & POLICY
(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Twitter’s decision last week to permanently suspend Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s account calls attention to the company’s permissive attitude toward accounts operated by foreign authoritarian regimes.

Whether or not Twitter was right to ban Greene for violating its Covid misinformation policy, the social-media platform has turned a blind eye to brazen, disgraceful anti-vaccine disinformation campaigns carried out by accounts affiliated with the Russian and Chinese governments.

The latest example of this came last week when the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party tabloid with 1.8 million Twitter followers, used the death of a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times editor to suggest that the Moderna booster vaccine is unsafe.

“Carlos Tejada, New York Times Foreign editor, died one day after receiving Moderna booster shot. It concerns vaccine safety,” read the tweet.

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Tejada, who served as the Times’ deputy Asia editor, had previously worked on projects shedding light on Beijing’s effort to cover up the emergence of the coronavirus in early 2020. According to a New York Times obituary, he died from a heart attack, but a number of vaccine-skeptical blogs and websites claimed that he had posted a photo to Instagram showing that he had received a booster shot the day before he passed away, linking the two events.

The Global Times amplified those claims to cast doubt on the Moderna shot’s safety, even though there’s no indication that Tejada’s death is linked to receiving a booster. The state-run outlet also took a victory lap of sorts: “Looking forward to more details by the NYT. It’ll be a good commemoration of Tejada, who won a Pulitzer for slamming China’s COVID-19 performance.”

As of this afternoon, the post remained untouched by Twitter’s content-moderation team. Twitter’s content policy prohibits users from sharing content “that is demonstrably false or misleading and may lead to significant risk of harm (such as increased exposure to the virus, or adverse effects on public health systems).

Twitter has a dubious record when it comes to content-moderation efforts related to pro-Beijing disinformation. Although it has taken down networks that promote CCP narratives and a small handful of particularly odious tweets by Chinese-government entities, Twitter verifies Chinese government-linked accounts that routinely engage in genocide denial. The platform has also suspiciously subjected the party’s critics to temporary, unexplained account suspensions.

Meanwhile, Sputnik V, the vaccine developed by a Russian-government medical institute, has its own account on Twitter with which it routinely claims that the vaccine developed by Pfizer is less effective against the new Omicron covid variant than Sputnik’s shot.

But the Russian government’s spin is undermined by an independent study that found that Sputnik V is not capable of neutralizing the Omicron variant. According to the pre-print study, issued last month by the University of Washington and Humabs Biomed SA, none of the 11 Sputnik-vaccinated participants developed antibodies capable of neutralizing Omicron.

Asked about Chinese and Russian efforts to discredit U.S.-produced vaccines on Twitter, a Twitter spokesperson would only comment on the company’s decision to ban Greene “for repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation policy.” This person added, “We’ve been clear that, per our strike system for this policy, we will permanently suspend accounts for repeated violations of the policy.”

But the Sputnik V account routinely spreads misleading information about the Pfizer vaccine, and the Global Times just as often peddles disinformation about the origins of Covid. How many times do Twitter-verified accounts run by foreign dictatorships need to run afoul of the Covid misinformation policy before the company acts?

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