Twitter blocked the accounts of a South African newsweekly and several journalists because of a story about coronavirus vaccines. The social media company said that the censorship was an error and blamed its increased reliance on AI in content moderation.
On January 30, Twitter suspended the account of The Continent, a South African newsweekly. The reason given was “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.”
The suspension of the account came shortly after the outlet published a story quoting tech billionaire Bill Gates, saying that coronavirus vaccines' patents should not be removed – something that would make vaccine production expensive especially for poor countries.
But the statement was true.
Several journalists took to Twitter to protest the blocking of The Continent's account. These journalist's accounts were also then blocked.
The suspended accounts included the editor at the outlet, Simon Alison, AFP's correspondent in Malawi, Sammy, Awami, and a freelance journalist based in Germany, Daniela Becker.
“This series of suspensions targeting a prestigious newsweekly and several journalists is unprecedented and dangerous,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk. “It speaks to Twitter's total lack of transparency about its moderation policies and to the very real threat that this social media platform poses to the freedom to inform by assuming the role of apprentice news and information regulator while lacking the required legitimacy, especially regarding journalists and media outlets that report the news professionally.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) contacted Twitter over the baseless suspensions and was told that the “enforcement action was taken in error and has been reversed.” The company blamed the “error” on the increased use of “machine learning and automation.” According to the company, automated systems “can sometimes lack the context that our teams [human] bring.”
According to RSF, such cases are the reason there is “urgency of the need to impose democratic obligations on the platforms as regards to transparency and the promotion of reliable information, in order to address the structural causes of the information chaos.”