'Rigged the COVID debate': How federally enticed censorship undermined science during pandemic

Aggressive policing of controversial content stifled scientific debate during pandemic's worst months, experts say.

Updated: December 30, 2022 - 11:36pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Few online platforms were better poised than Twitter to serve as a clearinghouse of insight and discovery during the dizzying early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the world scrambling to make sense of the rapidly spreading new virus, commenters and investigators around the globe were turning to Twitter's real-time public forum to share information and speculation regarding the disease. 

Monitors at Twitter, however, ended up interpreting the circumstances differently.

Driven by a pervasive fear of "misinformation" combined with unrelenting pressure from government officials, Twitter embarked on a heavy censorship campaign, suppressing entire narratives in the crucial early first year of the pandemic and presenting a largely one-sided interpretation of the COVID crisis that left little room for dissent. 

The breadth of that effort was exposed most fully this week by journalist David Zweig, who in another entry in the ongoing "Twitter files" expose revealed "how Twitter rigged the COVID debate."

The social media company accomplished this, Zweig said, "by censoring info that was true but inconvenient to U.S. govt. policy," "by discrediting doctors and other experts who disagreed" and "by suppressing ordinary users, including some sharing the CDC’s *own data*."

Considerable pressure to regulate speech about COVID came from the federal government, Zweig said, citing internal Twitter files. "[B]oth the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s pandemic content according to their wishes," he wrote. 

Among the Trump administration's requests to Twitter was help counteracting "runs on grocery stores," a brief but high-tension period early in the pandemic when shoppers rushed to gather supplies amid fears of shortages. 

When the Biden administration came to power, the censorship expanded. The Biden White House, for instance, specifically targeted what was called "anti-vaxxer accounts," including longtime and vociferous COVID critic Alex Berenson, a former New York Times investigative reporter. 

Berenson was among the earliest and most passionate dissenters from COVID orthodoxy, criticizing lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing policies and other intrusive pandemic interventions. He was suspended from Twitter in the summer of 2021 shortly after Biden publicly criticized social media companies for allowing people to share alternative opinions on vaccines.

Yet the company went further than that, at times censoring even highly credentialed and knowledgeable experts, among them epidemiologist and vaccine safety pioneer Martin Kulldorff, who was Harvard Medical School faculty at the time. In March 2021, Kulldorff argued that children and individuals with "prior natural infection" of COVID-19 did not need to be vaccinated against the virus. 

Those assertions are backed up by compelling scientific evidence. Children comprise a bare fraction of total COVID-19 deaths, while multiple studies have indicated that natural COVID immunity is as robust, if not more so, than vaccine-acquired immunity. Yet at the time, as Zweig pointed out, Twitter moderators locked Kulldorff's account, slapped the tweet with a "misleading" label and forbidding users from sharing it. 

Kulldorff told the Epoch Times this week that he was "not surprised" at seeing his name in the Twitter censorship files. He argued that the COVID debate, especially around vaccines, has become ideologically homogenized. 

“I think for many people, they only heard one voice," he said. "And when they heard alternative voices, [those voices] were sort of dismissed as cranks. But that’s not how medicine or science works."

About three weeks after billionaire Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter, Kulldorff told Just the News he had already noticed a change in how his account was treated.

He had been gaining 200-300 new followers per tweet in late 2021 through February 2022, but then "something changed" and each new tweet only drew 50-100 new followers. "Now In November it is back at around 300 new followers per tweet," he wrote in an email. 

What hadn't changed, according to Kulldorff: the "large number" of accounts impersonating his unique full name. "There are only 18 people in the world with the last name Kulldorff ... But on Twitter, Kulldorff is a very popular name including some accounts with rather disturbing sexual content."

At times Twitter even flagged and censored tweets using mainstream, official sources of data. Zweig noted that one prominent Twitter user was hit with censorship for sharing a tweet about COVID mortality rates that used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In another case, a Rhode Island doctor was "permanently suspended from Twitter" in part for sharing "the results from a peer reviewed study on mRNA vaccines."

COVID censorship has abated under Musk's ownership, particularly as studies regarding COVID-19 mortality, masking and vaccine efficacy have become more widespread. The company ceased enforcement of its COVID-19 "misinformation" policy last month.

In his interview with the Times, meanwhile, Kulldorff speculated that Twitter's censorship crusade may have been driven not just by internal moderators and government pressure but by assistance from scientists looking to squelch alternative COVID views. 

“Were other scientists involved in urging Twitter to censor their fellow scientists who had a different opinion?” he asked. “And if so, to what extent, and who were those scientists?”

Just the News Spotlight