Has the threat of COVID misinformation passed?


Elon Musk continued easing Twitter restrictions this week, with the social media platform quietly ending enforcement of its policy against spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Twitter cracked down on misleading information about the coronavirus in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic had just hit the United States. Misconceptions, confusion, and outright lies about the virus were rampant, fueling anxiety about how it was transmitted and how to avoid getting infected.

Since then, vaccines have become widespread, infections and deaths are way down from the pandemic's peak, and people have emerged from lockdowns to resume their normal lives. Daily new infections were averaging 45,219 on Nov. 30, with 262 deaths — down from more than 4,000 per day from the winter surge in early 2021. Has the time come to drop rules against COVID misinformation, or does this threaten to make it harder to prevent a coronavirus resurgence?

Musk reopened the floodgates of quackery

There is a danger Twitter will quickly "become a misinformation super-spreader" again, says Andrea Marks in Rolling Stone. Twitter's old policy, imposed before Musk's takeover, warned that tweets would be "removed for claiming 'the pandemic is a hoax, or part of a deliberate attempt at population control, or that 5G wireless technology is causing COVID-19." When Twitter said it would stop enforcing the policy, some users immediately started "testing the waters to see what kind of false statements they could knowingly publish."

Now you can go on Twitter and be bombarded with posts like, "COVID was created in a lab by the Chinese with the assistance of Dr. Fauci," or, "Ivermectin works!!! Go figure." That gem got 11.9 thousand likes. Not everyone is worried, though. Conservative commentator Monica Crowley celebrated Twitter's dumping of its "Orwellian COVID misinformation policy. FREE THE TRUTH!" This is the same Monica Crowley who used to repeat "false claims that Obama was secretly a Muslim and praised Trump for questioning his citizenship."

Allowing contradicting information could be helpful

Bogus claims about COVID really can cause harm, especially if they "deter medically vulnerable people from getting vaccinated or encourage the use of ineffective and potentially dangerous treatments," says Jacob Sullum at Reason. But shutting down debate on how to fight the pandemic can also threaten public health. The policy Twitter just ditched "deferred to the officially recognized consensus" when even our top experts weren't entirely sure whether their own information was true.

If you try to stamp out anything that contradicts the latest advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "questioning the scientific basis for requiring masks in schools or for maintaining a specific distance from other people likewise could count as misinformation. Even arguing that the costs of lockdowns outweighed their benefits might qualify, since those policies were aimed at enforcing social distancing." That's not how you fight a pandemic. "Reasonable, well-informed people can and do disagree about such issues, based on different assessments of the 'best available evidence.'"  

Mandates are as dangerous as misinformation

There is a fine line between mandates and misinformation, says Marc Siegel, a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health, in the New York Post. Both "imply a group with power knows more than you do and should superimpose its will." There is still plenty we don't know about COVID. But we do know at this point that "mandates and inflexibility don't work — just look at the chaos in China over its zero-COVID tyranny." 

The reason we need flexibility to fight COVID is that, time after time, "what was yesterday's misinformation has become tomorrow's truth and vice versa, a reality that goes beyond Anthony Fauci's and others' infamous flip-flopping on masks." As COVID swept through the nation, Americans "learned the hard way that even if masking and vaccination have a public-health value (I believe they do), mandating them causes significant collateral damage in socialization and learning (mandatory masks) and job loss (mandatory vaccines)." And shutdowns have "controversial value with associated great costs." Opposing them is not misinformation. It's not even clear it's wrong.

Let's focus on what we do know

Three years in, myths and misinformation are still a problem, say public health researcher Simon Nicholas Williams and virologist Stephen Griffin, a public health expert, in The Conversation. What are some of the main misconceptions? First, the virus that causes COVID is not, as many believe, "becoming 'milder'" in the Omicron era. It's true that early Omicron variants were less likely to cause severe illness than Delta, the previous dominant version. "But disease outcomes are critically dependent on immunity," and places with "poorer vaccination coverage" had more devastating outbreaks. Another myth is that COVID only poses a serious danger to older and vulnerable people. It's true that children "are far less prone to severe COVID than adults, but COVID is a "significant cause of death and illness" among pediatric diseases. 

Crackpots also are wrong about masks. They do work. "Any barrier helps," but cloth ones catch only droplets, not aerosols. "Surgical masks with non-woven layers are significantly better, yet still offer limited protection compared with respirators," which can filter 95 percent to 99 percent of particles, protecting "the wearer and others." Another misconception is that vaccines don't reduce transmission. "Research consistently supports that vaccination reduces omicron transmission as well as severity." There are plenty of COVID myths out there. Fortunately, we now have the evidence needed to debunk them.

COVID misinformation.

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