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Elon Musk’s ‘Community Notes’ are exposing the WHO’s lies
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Elon Musk’s ‘Community Notes’ are exposing the WHO’s lies

Maybe the World Health Organization should just get off social media until its spokespeople are trained to stop sowing doubt and confusion that can only harm global public health.

In January 2020, as it became clear that countries outside of China were reporting COVID cases, the taxpayer-funded World Health Organization instead spent its time publishing a series of 14 tweets about the dangers of vaping, including claims that e-cigarette liquid is “highly flammable,” that secondhand vapor is lethal to bystanders, and that there is no evidence that e-cigarettes help people to quit smoking, all of which are entirely false.

It was a scurrilous thread deliberately designed to mislead the public, and, despite all of the disingenuous claims being comprehensively debunked, it has still not been deleted. In the intervening period, many thousands of people will have read falsehoods promoted by the WHO and believe they must be true because of the organization’s perceived credibility.

The WHO’s social media interaction is now effectively on par with “anti-vaxxers” and 9/11 truthers.

Scroll on a few years and this deliberate tactic of the WHO to deceive the public has been brutally exposed by the Community Notes initiative installed by Elon Musk on his takeover of X (formerly Twitter). Originally intended to combat conspiracy theorists, propaganda, and online scams, the WHO’s purposeful use of social media to disseminate information it knows to be untrue has also fallen into the net.

A post on March 17 by the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean regional office went viral due to the brutal takedown it received from a Community Note when it falsely claimed that it was a myth to say that “vape & heated tobacco products are safer alternatives to cigarettes.” The note savagely countered the WHO’s misinformation with more than 100 links from health authorities around the world, including from the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the European Union, and even the WHO’s own European branch.

Unlike corrections to its mendacious 2020 thread by way of replies, the Community Note is visible to all by being attached to the tweet itself.

To date, the tweet has generated more than 100 quote tweets from social media users expressing reactions to the note ranging from disgust to hilarity. This isn’t the first time the WHO has been community noted. In January, its Western Pacific region received the same Community Note treatment for a tweet promoting the exact same lie.

This should be a source of deep embarrassment for the WHO. Its social media interaction is now effectively on par with “anti-vaxxers” and 9/11 truthers. Its reputation nosedived due to its incompetence when dealing with the pandemic, and it is now seemingly intent to reinforce that lack of trust with an ideological and irresponsible objection to reduced-risk nicotine products, based on misinformation and lies, which could save millions of lives worldwide.

There are serious repercussions here. The WHO should be a respected global authority on public health matters. When it promotes inaccurate information, however, it undermines the organization’s credibility. It raises questions about the rigor of its research and the reliability of its statements. People will start to doubt the WHO’s integrity and become less inclined to trust its recommendations on other health-related issues, including future pandemics.

Continuing attempts to mislead the public (for whatever reason) is unethical and counterproductive for an organization like the WHO, whose supposed mission is to promote global public health based on evidence and scientific consensus.

The WHO has a responsibility to uphold the highest standards of transparency, accountability, and scientific integrity in its messaging to protect public health and build trust with the communities it serves. It is distinctly failing to do so with vaping and tobacco harm reduction.

Clearly, the WHO’s current policy is to discourage policymakers from implementing evidence-based harm-reduction strategies and limit access to lifesaving reduced-risk products for smokers looking to quit. The methods it uses to achieve this include selective messaging, misleading language, smearing those who have an opposing view, cynically exploiting information gaps, and using surrogates such as so-called news sites funded by its ideologically prohibitionist allies.

Now that social media users can call out misinformation from the WHO through initiatives like Elon Musk’s Community Notes, the organization may need to reassess its communication strategies. This should mean telling the truth to avoid further embarrassment and damage to its reputation.

Alternatively, the WHO should just get off social media until its spokespeople are trained to stop sowing doubt and confusion that can only harm global public health.

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Martin Cullip

Martin Cullip

Martin Cullip is an international fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center and is based in South London in the United Kingdom.