Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is shocked by Twitter's arbitrary and baseless blocking of the accounts of a prestigious South African newsweekly and several journalists in connection with a story about Covid-19 vaccines. This disturbing violation of the freedom to inform highlights the dangers of failing to impose democratic obligations on all-powerful online platforms, RSF says.
Twitter suspended The Continent newsweekly's access to its account on 30 January for supposedly "spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19."
The blocking was prompted by nothing more than a tweet drawing attention to that day's stories, including a quote from US billionaire Bill Gates who said he didn't support removing patents on Covid-19 vaccines, although this could increase vaccine production and access, especially in the Global South.
After The Continent editor Simon Allison criticized the blocking in a tweet, his personal Twitter account was also blocked the next day. And RSF has identified at least three other journalists who subsequently suffered the same fate in connection with this case.
After tweeting about the "ridiculousness" of this decision, AFP's Malawi correspondent, Jack McBrams, found he could not access his own account until he deleted his tweet. Sammy AwaMi, a freelancer based in Tanzania, said his account was blocked after he shared The Continent's article. And when he appealed, Twitter's support staff quickly responded that the "violation" had been confirmed. Daniela Becker, a freelancer in Germany, had the same experience and had to wait 12 hours to recover access to her account.
"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."
When contacted by The Continent's editor, Twitter's head of public policy for sub-Saharan Africa responded that Twitter was "still investigating" and that the blocking had "nothing to do with the article's mention of Bill Gates" or the criticism of Twitter.
Dismayed by these laconic and evasive responses, RSF asked Twitter to explain what could have led to this series of blockings of a media outlet's and journalists' accounts despite their use of its appeal procedures, and to shed light on its moderation policies.
Twitter simply recognized that "enforcement action was taken in error and has been reversed," and attributed the error to its growing use of "machine learning and automation" that "can sometimes lack the context that our teams bring." None of RSF's questions received a straight answer.
A month ago, RSF denounced Twitter's sudden suspension of the account of The Kashmir Walla, a news magazine based in northern India's Kashmir Valley, after the Indian ruling party's troll armies repeatedly reported it for supposed violations. Twitter took a week to restore its access.
"The mechanisms created by the platforms for combatting disinformation should not result in undermining the visibility of those whose very job is to produce reliable information," said Iris de Villars, head of RSF's Tech Desk. "This latest case confirms the urgency of the need to impose democratic obligations on the platforms as regards transparency and the promotion of reliable information, in order to address the structural causes of the information chaos."
It was with this aim that RSF launched the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), which is producing a set of machine-readable standards that social media and search engine algorithms can use to give preference to media that adhere to journalistic methods and ethics.
To help provide the digital arena with democratic safeguards, RSF also launched the Forum on Information and Democracy, which in November published an initial set of 250 recommendations on platform transparency, content moderation, the promotion of reliable reporting, and messaging apps when their massive use goes beyond the bounds of private correspondence.