A journalist today accused Twitter of suspending users for failing to tow the government line on Covid after she was locked out of her account for a post condemning the lockdown.
Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson was responding to a BBC article about the risk of coronavirus spreading in universities when she tweeted that she ‘wanted’ students to get the virus to ‘speed us towards herd immunity’.
The post led to her account being suspended for a day – despite her insisting this view reflected the opinions of scientists including Oxford’s Prof Sunetra Gupta and the Noble Prize winner Prof Michael Levitt.
The Government have been pressurising social media companies to tackle ‘false and misleading narratives’ about Covid, and through its Rapid Response Unit claims to have ‘resolved’ 70 such incidents a week.
This led some commentators to draw a line between Pearson’s experience and the wider Government drive against perceived misinformation, with Big Brother Watch accusing ministers of an ‘Orwellian’ effort to police legal speech.
Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson was responding to a BBC article about the risk of coronavirus spreading in universities when she tweeted that she ‘wanted’ students to get the virus to ‘speed us towards herd immunity’
Pearson’s full tweet, posted on Monday, read: ‘How hard is it for people to understand? We WANT students to get the virus. They will speed us towards community immunity. It may not be very far off.’
By yesterday morning she had been locked out of her account, although it was later restored 12 hours later and was live by today.
After explaining what had happened she asked in the Telegraph: ‘Is it a coincidence that the Twitter algorithms, which put me on the Naughty Step for 12 hours, align so closely with government policy?
‘Or is it that Lefties get to shut down any version of the truth but their own?’
The Government has been urging social media companies to step up their efforts to combat perceived misinformation about Covid.
Its Rapid Response Unit, operating from within the Cabinet Office and No10, is involved in identifying ‘false narratives’ online and flagging these to social media companies to be revolved.
Ministers insist this work is vital to ensure the public has access to proper medical advice to protect themselves and save lives.
But today campaign group Big Brother Watch suggested the Unit – and Twitter’s suspension of Pearson – were both examples of a wider attempt to ‘censor’ freedom of expression around the virus.
Its director, Silkie Carlo, said: ‘It’s an affront to fundamental rights for Twitter to censor people’s lawfully held opinions, however controversial or poorly worded.
‘The pandemic makes freedom of expression, open debate and rebuttal more important, not less. Censorship has never aided science, only power.
‘It’s a little known fact that a mysterious government “counter disinformation” unit is pressuring social media companies to act as speech police online, silencing lawfully held opinions. It’s Orwellian in the extreme.’
The Government has been urging social media companies to step up their efforts to combat perceived misinformation about Covid. Boris Johnson is pictured today
Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice also criticised the Government’s initiative.
He said: ‘There is an easy clear line between preventing criminal scams and preventing genuine debate by people.
‘Twitter have crossed this, quite possibly aided and abetted by the Government which is in thrall to Imperial College and clearly trying to shut down views from Oxford University related scientists.
‘It is appalling and terrifying, what you expect in North Korea not Whitehall.’
Meirion Jenkins, a Conservative councillor for Sutton Mere Green in Birmingham, called Twitter’s move ‘quite troubling’.
‘Alison is obviously a very credible and high quality and credible journalist, I agree with almost everything she says but that’s not really the point,’ he said.
‘Whether you agree or disagree with restricting what she can tweet given that they are based in fact.
‘For the large part it should be left to the good common sense of the British public to read the information is available out there and they will make up their own mind.’
Pearson’s criticism of the lockdown has been echoed by several leading scientists, including Professors Sunetra Gupta
Pearson’s criticism of the lockdown has been echoed by several leading scientists, including Professors Sunetra Gupta and Michael Levitt, who she referenced in her article.
Both scientists have criticised the Government’s lockdown, with Prof Gupta arguing that restrictions weaken the immune system and leave people vulnerable to future pandemics.
The epidemiologist also released a study suggesting that coronavirus had arrived in the UK in December and caused a significant ‘herd immunity’ – rivalling official advice from Neil Ferguson of Imperial College that it could cause 500,000 deaths.
Prof Levitt Stanford University chemist has also criticised lockdowns as driven by ‘panic’ and suggested the measures have cost more lives than they have saved.
Pearson also attacked ministers for suggesting the rule of six could curb Christmas gatherings, saying it was ‘disgusting’ to claim the celebration ‘is their gift’.
Social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have vowed to tackle Covid ‘misinformation’ posted during the pandemic.
Facebook now sends myth-busting messages to users who have liked, reacted or commented on posts containing ‘harmful misinformation’ about the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Twitter tags tweets containing disputed information – but insists it will only remove searches that are ‘harmful’.
The author Lionel Shriver previously had an audio column about the importance of obesity to Covid death statistics removed from YouTube because it ‘contradicted’ World Health Organisation guidance.
Twitter said: ‘We enforce the Twitter Rules judiciously and impartially for all account holders. When we identify any account that violates our rules, we will take enforcement action.’
Prof Levitt Stanford University chemist has also criticised lockdowns as driven by ‘panic’ and suggested the measures have cost more lives than they have saved