“Everybody knows what happened to Damar Hamlin because it’s happened to too many athletes around the world since COVID vaccination was required in sports,” said former Newsmax correspondent Emerald Robinson, in a tweet that was viewed more than 2 million times and visible under the #DamarHamlin hashtag trending in the United States.
Yet as of Tuesday evening, little information was known about the cause of Hamlin’s collapse. Nor was it known if Hamlin had been vaccinated against covid, though the NFL previously has said nearly 95 percent of players are vaccinated. The Bills announced Tuesday that Hamlin had suffered a cardiac arrest, and two cardiologists told The Washington Post that a blow to Hamlin’s chest may have thrown his heart out off rhythm, disrupting blood flow to the brain. The doctors said they could only speculate after watching video footage of the play.
The tweets’ broad and rapid reach, however, underscores how baseless claims related to the coronavirus can ricochet across Twitter with little friction since new owner Elon Musk rolled back the company’s policy against covid misinformation in November. The company has also restored the accounts of many previously suspended individuals, including multiple high-profile anti-vaxxers. The moves are indicative of Musk’s broader efforts to undo years of work to prevent the spread of falsehoods on Twitter in favor of a “free speech” agenda.
The viral tweets were sent as millions of Americans were looking for answers about Hamlin’s condition with news broadcasters and sports commentators having little immediate information about the player’s condition. The information vacuum created a perfect storm for anti-vaxxers, who had already been priming people to believe sudden deaths or sudden collapses could be linked to vaccinations, social media experts say.
Under Twitter’s previous leadership, the tweet with the syringes likely would have been labeled with additional context, said a former company employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss content moderation at the company. But on Tuesday, the tweet appeared unlabeled and garnered more than a million views.
Twitter’s enforcement of its covid misinformation policies was imperfect and widely criticized, both by Democrats, who said the company hadn’t done enough to rein in falsehoods, and conservatives, who warned the company had gone too far. The former Twitter employee said speculative tweets would have been “tricky” for Twitter’s Trust and Safety team to handle because they’re often vague and not making claims that definitively could be said to be false.
“It’s right at the top of the pile,” said Smith, the sociologist, referring to people’s timelines. “Previously, before Musk rolled back misinformation policies, these things would have been algorithmically deplatformed or made harder to find.”
Twitter’s decision to roll back its policies could have implications for other social networks as well. Smith warned that the false tweets would likely not remain confined to Twitter, as people would likely screenshot and then share them in more private channels — including messages and Facebook groups.
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