Musk reopens door for Covid disinfo, Chinese trolls blame US for unrest and NZ couple reject blood from vaccinated donors

Isobel Cockerell

 

COVID CONSPIRACIES RAMPANT ON MUSK’S TWITTER

Elon Musk-led Twitter has quietly removed its ban on Covid-19 disinformation. Since the outset of the pandemic, Twitter had suspended more than 11,000 Covid conspiracy accounts and removed almost 100,000 Covid fake news posts. A Twitter transparency report published this summer discussed how the platform was prioritizing “removing or annotating potentially harmful and misleading information to ensure that users can readily find credible information.” But that was back in July — an eon ago. Open the report now, and there’s a new message right at the top:  “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.” No public announcement or explanation accompanied the change. 

And as we’ve been tracking in this newsletter, the effects of the Musk takeover are clear to see as anti-vaccine conspiracists and QAnon adherents swarm the platform. This week, the main anti-vaccine news spreading on the platform was a trailer for a new conspiracy movie called “Died Suddenly.” The film makes various grisly and false claims about the vaccine being a depopulation tool, complete with smash-cut montages of people keeling over. The best, and most fulsome, takedown I read was by the University of McGill’s Jonathan Jarry.

But Twitter might not be able to continue operating this way — at least not in Europe. The EU warned Musk this week that Twitter could be banned in the bloc unless the platform abides by its content moderation rules. Twitter, he was told, was in danger of breaking the EU’s new digital services law. Under particular scrutiny is Musk’s highly publicized, laissez-faire attitude towards reinstating banned users and Twitter’s growing inability to “aggressively” combat disinformation.

IN GLOBAL NEWS

There are signs the unprecedented anti-zero-Covid protests in China are working. Dozens of districts in Shanghai and Guangzhou have lifted lockdown measures, after unbelievable scenes unfolded across the country over the past week. We’ve been tracking the online dissent and simmering resentment over the never-ending zero Covid policy for many months. But it’s rarely bubbled over into the physical world — until now. Among pro-government, nationalist influencers, conspiracy theories about the motives driving the protests have swept Chinese social media. Chief among them is the claim that the U.S. is funding the unrest with a $500 million budget to pay protesters. The unrest was sparked by an apartment fire in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, which had been locked down for 100 days. People were shut inside their apartments and firefighters couldn’t get past Covid barriers as the blaze raged. “After the fire tragedy, we were released last weekend,” my contact in Urumqi told me. “Now we’re in deep winter, and uncertainty fills the air. We don’t know when this policy will die.” 

Anthroposophy — a 20th-century spiritual movement founded by Rudolf Steiner — is growing in influence over Germany’s medical system. It’s inspiring doctors across Germany to believe that karma is the cause of some illnesses. “Anthroposophy is anchored much more deeply in society than many assume — in education, in medicine, in agriculture, in the financial world,” a recent German documentary explained, adding that the practice has had a boom in popularity during the pandemic. Anthroposophy has legal status as an alternative therapy in Germany, although many see it as pseudoscience. One head of an anthroposophy hospital in Berlin told journalists he believed that disease is a result of misconduct in a patient’s past life.

Doctors around the world are witnessing a strange and scary phenomenon: hardline anti-vaccine adherents are refusing blood transfusions from those who have been vaccinated. Now, New Zealand is taking an anti-vaccine couple to court because they refuse to allow their sick baby to have surgery unless blood from unvaccinated donors is used. The baby urgently needs open heart surgery, so the New Zealand health service is seeking guardianship of the child. Because, of course, donated blood isn’t separated based on vaccination status. 

While we’re on the subject of blood, it’s a good moment to mention that the Food and Drug Administration has reduced restrictions on blood donations by gay and bisexual men. Previously, gay men had to be abstinent for a minimum of three months before they were allowed to give blood. But now the FDA is planning to allow donations from those in monogamous relationships. It’s hoped the move will help ease the strain on the shortage of donated blood in the U.S. But LGBTQ advocates say the easing of restrictions does not go far enough. “Bans and restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men are rooted in stigma, not science,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, told ABC. “This fight is not over until all LGBTQ Americans who want to donate blood are met with the same protocols as other Americans.” Some scientists argue that HIV risk behaviors — such as getting a tattoo, having unprotected sex, or taking drugs — should determine whether someone is allowed to give blood, rather than blanket banning people because of their sexual orientation.

WHAT WE’RE READING 

The New Yorker and ProPublica’s piece on how the hospice industry has become a 22-billion-dollar “hustle” in the US is a must-read. Ava Kaufman takes a horrifying dive into the world of end-of-life care in America, which is riddled with exploitation and fraud. It’s a shattering, disturbing investigation.