Twitter’s decision to stop enforcing its COVID-19 misinformation policy has put another bullseye on Elon Musk’s back.
“In my view, Twitter now is jumping to the front of the queue of the regulators,” Věra Jourová, the European Commission’s vice president for values and transparency, told POLITICO.
“Mr. Musk seems to want to attract a lot of attention,” she added when asked about the Commission’s stance on Twitter’s decision not to remove falsehoods related to the ongoing global pandemic. “I think he succeeded in attracting the attention of the regulators, also with a recent decision not to assess COVID-related disinformation.”
On Wednesday, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton held a video call with the Twitter CEO to tell him his company was not ready for the bloc’s upcoming content moderation revamp, known as the Digital Services Act. They both agreed that the European Commission would conduct a stress test in early 2023 at the social media platform’s headquarters.
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“There is still huge work ahead, as Twitter will have to implement transparent user policies, significantly reinforce content moderation and protect freedom of speech, tackle disinformation with resolve, and limit targeted advertising,” according to a Commission readout of Breton’s call with Musk. The French commissioner also said Twitter needed sufficient personal and technical capacity to comply with Europe’s upcoming rules, adding he would be monitoring its progress.
Twitter did not reply to a request for comment.
Since Musk’s takeover of the social media platform in October, almost all of the company’s content moderation and public policy teams have either been fired or left the company. EU and national regulators have fretted Musk no longer has enough staff to enforce the bloc’s current and future content rules.
Adding to regulators’ frustration is that this latest move on COVID-19-related misinformation is a conscious decision from Musk — not a side effect of layoffs and resignations that can be offset with new employees. It’s another step toward making Twitter a haven for “free speech absolutist[s],” as the South African-born billionaire has also reinstated previously banned accounts, including that of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Respect the gentlemen’s agreement
Yet despite the rhetoric, policymakers currently have few powers to force the social media platform to take action against misleading information about the ongoing pandemic. And the Digital Services Act will become applicable only in early 2024 at the latest.
The EU’s main vehicle to fight disinformation, the code of practice, is voluntary. COVID-19 misinformation is not illegal in most cases, so Twitter is not breaking the bloc’s current rules regulating online platforms.
However, Jourová, who played a key role in the EU’s efforts against online falsehoods, said she expected Twitter to “fully respect the EU law and honor its commitments” under a Code of Practice on Disinformation, first signed in 2018 and updated this year — including devoting resources and report results on fake news. “Twitter has been a very useful partner in the fight against disinformation and illegal hate speech and this must not change,” she said.
Before its COVID-19 policy change, Twitter had previously voluntarily removed content and accounts that posted “demonstrably false or misleading” material that could “lead to significant risk of harm,” including anti-vax profiles. Until May 2022, Twitter — alongside Meta, Alphabet and others — also published regular updates within the EU about its actions to remove COVID-19 falsehoods from its platform.
“We regret this step taken by Twitter,” a Commission spokesperson said about the change in policy, as proactive steps taken by the social media platform “were effective measures to reduce the spread of disinformation.”
Under the updated code, the pledges made by the company before the Musk takeover “include reporting obligations on measures they take, adequate financial and human resources as well as appropriate internal processes to ensure the implementation of their commitments,” the spokesperson warned. A report is still expected in January.
It’s not just Brussels that is sharpening its knives. French Digital Minister Jean-Noël Barrot, who has been sending regular warnings on his Twitter account, didn’t appreciate Twitter’s change of policy on COVID-related disinformation. “COVID-19 and vaccination misinformation [are] now freely available on Twitter. Another milestone is reached in irresponsibility,” he tweeted.
The French government’s previous digital minister Cédric O already labeled Twitter (before the Musk takeover) as one of the least cooperative platforms after the company was the last one to remove Kremlin-backed RT France and Sputnik.
For Ana Brakus, executive director of Faktograf, a fact-checking organization that is a signatory to the EU’s new code of practice on disinformation, the ability of Musk to change Twitter’s content rules on a whim is a clear example of how regulators cannot take companies’ word for how they tackle potentially harmful content online.
“It really is a cautionary tale about how regulators sometimes move too slowly, especially compared to these platforms,” she said. “When the leadership of a company wants to implement big changes, it can just do it.”
This article has been updated.