Twitter Files: Big Pharma pressured platform to censor COVID-19 vaccine debate

The pharmaceutical industry lobbied Twitter to censor posts critical of the COVID-19 vaccine, the latest batch of Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files” shows.

Internal emails, unveiled by Intercept reporter Lee Fang on Monday, show those efforts included attempts to silence users demanding generic vaccines for low-income countries and later expanded into a broad censorship campaign to “shape content around vaccine policy.”

In December 2020, German biotech giant BioNTech emailed Twitter directly to ask content moderators to censor users who had posted tweets asking the company to share its intellectual property and patents to allow other drugmakers to produce generic vaccines at lower costs.

That email was followed, one day later, with another from a European lobbyist representing the pharmaceutical industry warning Twitter about an impending campaign by activists calling for low-cost vaccines on the platform. The lobbyist cued Twitter to be on the lookout for users posting #PeoplesVaccine, among other hashtags.

The lobbyist also asked the platform to keep an eye on the accounts owned by BioNTech, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna.

“The authorities are warning about “serious consequences” of the action, i.e. posts and a flood of comments “that may violate [Twitter’s terms of service]” as well as the “takeover of user accounts” are to be expected,” the lobbyist warned.


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Among those posts monitored for “potential terms of use violations” was a tweet by a 74-year-old retired bricklayer in the U.K. warning that “people in poor countries are going to MISS OUT on a #COVID19 vaccine next year.”

“We need a #PeoplesVaccine!,” the post read.

Mr. Fang wrote that the full breadth of Twitter’s response to the December 2020 request remains unclear.

“Several Twitter employees noted in subsequent messages that none of this activism constituted abuse,” Mr. Fang wrote. “But the company continued monitoring tweets.”

Those early efforts were later expanded by the lobbying group BIO, which represented Pfizer and Moderna.

BIO gave $1,275,000 to fund a campaign by a public health nonprofit called The Public Good Projects (PGP) which, according to its website, specializes in large-scale media monitoring programs and “social and behavior change interventions.”

The Public Good Projects’ “Stronger” campaign included an initiative to help Twitter “create content moderation bots, select which public health accounts got verification [and] helped crowdsource content takedowns,” Mr. Fang wrote.

“Many of the tweets the BIO-funded campaign focused on were truly unhinged misinfo, like claims that vaccines include microchips,” Mr. Fang wrote. “But others Stronger lobbied Twitter on were more of a grey area, like vaccine passports & vaccine mandates, policies that coerce vaccination.”

In one email to Twitter employees from February 2022, PGP’s senior director of strategic partnerships attached a “misinfo report” and “our batch verification request.”

“This week, we saw: People opposed to vaccines are capitalizing on the [New York Times] article about the CDC withholding vaccine information,” the email reads. “The articles do not contain misinformation themselves but are using the news to further prove the CDC is untrustworthy.”

Mr. Fang noted in Monday’s thread that “this massive push to censor and label covid misinfo never applied to drug companies.”

“When big pharma wildly exaggerated the risks of creating low-cost generic vaccines, Stronger did nothing,” he wrote. “The ruled only applied to critics of the industry.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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