Twitter suspends reporter for pointing out Alaska legislator spreading misinformation on vaccines

A woman in a clear plastic
Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold quizzed state health officials about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines during a Feb. 4, 2021 hearing of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee. (Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

Twitter said it made a mistake when it temporarily suspended the account of a political blogger who relayed a state senator’s false statements that the COVID-19 vaccine was harmful.

Alaska journalist Matt Buxton has covered state politics for nearly a decade. After five years as a newspaper reporter in Fairbanks, he became the editor of The Midnight Sun, a left-leaning political blog that covers the Alaska state legislature on Twitter.

“I am kind of a prolific live tweeter, I cover meetings in much detail as I can,” he said Friday from his home in Anchorage. “During this hearing, I thought some very interesting stuff was that Senator Lora Reinbold from Eagle River was asking about hydroxychloroquine and other debunked things.”

Reinbold was quizzing Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum on the availability of ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, Vitamin D and zinc to treat COVID-19.

Matt Buxton is editor of The Midnight Sun, a left-leaning blog that covers Alaska politics. (Courtesy photo)

The National Institute of Health “recommends against the use of ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19, except in a clinical trial.” The same goes for hydroxychloroquine — an anti-malarial drug touted last year by President Trump as a treatment for the coronavirus.

“Towards the end of the meeting, she’s talking about how it’s important because the vaccine is causing deaths and paralysis and people are dying,” Buxton said.

It was among a number of points Reinbold insisted be read into the record while committee chair, Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson, tried to hurry things along.

“There could be people dying, paralyzed — deaths,” Reinbold told the committee.

After that exchange Buxton tweeted: “(Sen. David) Wilson is trying to cut her off but not before Reinbold can throw in something about people being paralyzed by the vaccine.” 

And that’s what was flagged as vaccine disinformation, Buxton said.

He didn’t know right away. In fact, he spent the rest of the afternoon using Twitter normally. An email from Twitter arrived just after midnight, saying his account had been suspended. He appealed early that morning.

“I wrote in, ‘Look, I’m a reporter, and was reporting on what a state senator was saying, I think this is pretty relevant…’ And my appeal was denied right away.”

He deleted the tweet that started his 12-hour suspension, which expires shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday.

Reporter silenced as lawmaker doubles down

But while Buxton sat in Twitter jail, Reinbold used another senate committee hearing to raise questions about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. 

“I am not an anti vaxxer,” she said on Thursday afternoon. “But I’m concerned about this new type of vaccine that is out there, that they are only strictly under emergency-use authorization. So I have the constitutional responsibility to help, as all of us senators do, for the health and public health of the Alaskans.”

She pressed Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink about now-debunked rumors that Alaskans had died from the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“There are no deaths associated with the COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna or Pfizer, in the United States,” Zink told the committee.

“Wow, that that that is amazing, because I’m certainly following COVID reactions online,” Reinbold replied. “And I tell you, I think that definitely contradicts things that I’ve definitely been following online.”

RELATED: Alaska’s top doctor says misinformation hurts vaccination effort

Buxton said he’d like to know what got him in trouble with the social media platform. Was it artificial intelligence? Were there complaints directed at his tweets? He’s not sure, and Twitter isn’t saying.

In the meantime, Buxton is more concerned about misinformation going unchallenged. He cites an Anchorage Daily News article that debunked misinformation about five Alaskans allegedly killed by the vaccine, which was published as he sat out his Twitter suspension.

“This is a thing that is going on,” Buxton said. “We need to really meet it headfirst. I think it’s important to call out elected officials when they are spreading clearly dangerous information.”

Twitter’s mea culpa

Twitter said late Friday the company had erred in suspending Buxton’s account.

“We made a mistake with this enforcement action,” a spokesperson wrote in a one-sentence statement.

The representative added the company would follow up with more information.

By then, Buxton was already back at it, live tweeting a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting chaired by Sen. Reinbold. But he said the experience has had a chilling effect: He’s being extra careful how he frames his tweets.

Reinbold’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

This article has been updated to add comment from a Twitter spokesperson.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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