When his $44 billion purchase of Twitter is finalized, Elon Musk will add social-media magnate to a resume that already includes electric vehicle entrepreneur, aerospace manufacturing innovator and world’s richest person. But in seeking to preserve what he deems to be free speech and make changes related to content moderation, Musk threatens to wipe out the brand-safety guardrails that have lured wary health and pharma brands onto the platform.

For healthcare marketers, the potential impact is speculative; Musk’s bid was initially dismissed as preposterous and could still fall apart. Many social-media experts are nonetheless expressing concern about the potential effect on brand safety..

“We know Musk has been outspoken when it comes to the idea that Twitter should be the digital town square, giving a voice to all people and allowing free speech,” said Alexandra Gilson, VP, paid social at CMI Media Group. “What first comes to mind is brand safety and brands protecting themselves from contextually aligning themselves with harmful or non-factual content. That includes medical misinformation.”

Twitter currently has plenty of safeguards in place to protect brands, Gilson said. Those safeguards have paved the way for many companies, including historically risk-averse pharma organizations, to advertise on the platform. That likely won’t change in the near future.

Gilson, however, worries about what may come next.

“If this does open up in terms of allowing people to speak in less regulated ways, I think the onus is even more so on our clients — on brands, on pharma — to make sure they’re in those spaces and sharing accurate information,” Gilson stressed. “Maybe now more than ever, it’s a time for them to step in if there’s conversation swirling and it’s not the correct narrative. They need to lead those conversations and share accurate information right from the source.”

Health misinformation has become one of the biggest issues borne from the pandemic, with platforms like Facebook and YouTube pledging to crack down on inaccurate information related to vaccines. Last year, YouTube moved to boost credible health information from authoritative sources while pledging to remove inaccurate content. Meanwhile, some lawmakers have called for legislation that would remove liability protections from platforms that spread health misinformation.

Gil Bashe, chair of global health and purpose at Finn Partners, believes that Musk’s potential purchase of Twitter signals an even larger issue.

“Healthcare delivery is always based on factual information that enables people to make informed decisions,” Bashe said. “Whenever you have an individual of power take control of a platform, whether it’s Rupert Murdoch or Elon Musk, you’ve got to reflect on how it will impact the authenticity and accuracy of information that allows people to make an informed decision, and whether the platform will be used to further someone’s personal aims.”

For pharma, of course, there are regulatory mechanisms already in place that buffer the industry from misinformation on a platform like Twitter, such as the Food and Drug Administration’s and the Federal Trade Commission’s regulations on proof of science and accuracy.

“It’ll be important that health continues to be under the watchful eye of the FDA and the FTC, which set very clear guidelines around what is accurate information,” Bashe continued. “The health sector’s commitment to science-based, regulated information is a system that remains in place as a counterbalance to the aspiration or concern of no parameters set by Musk.”

Not everyone is wary of Musk’s potential new ownership of Twitter. Chuck Hemann, president of integrated activation at Real Chemistry, believes an innovator like Musk might lead to a long-overdue revamp of the platform.

“I’m actually kind of excited to see what he’s going to do,” Hemann said.

He noted that Twitter has remained more or less the same in recent years, even as video-based platforms like TikTok surged in popularity. While Twitter introduced Spaces and new types of ad units, as well as allowed slightly longer-form content, it hasn’t changed much from a brand-marketing perspective, he argued.

“Twitter hasn’t done much over that time period to address the concerns that healthcare companies have had for years – content moderation and the presence of spam and bots being two big ones,” Hemann explained. “It’s a little too soon to know where Musk is going to take it. But if he addresses those two things in particular, it potentially becomes an even more interesting platform for healthcare brands.”

Until the deal closes and Musk offers more detail about his plans for the platform,  healthcare marketers can only do so much. Still, Gilson believes there’s an opportunity for brands to get their social-listening houses in order in advance of any changes.

“Brands will need to be proactive and do their own social listening, and see what the response is from people on the platform,” Gilson said. “It’s always good to have passive social listening in place, so you have a response ready to go when things arise, and you’re not always in reactive mode.”

Bashe agrees, adding that whether the Musk takeover of Twitter ultimately proves to be good or bad (or somewhere in between) for brand marketers, it may spur healthcare companies to review and transform their platform strategy.

“This conversation around freedom of voice and freedom to better access to care is an invitation for healthcare marketers to lean in and ask, ‘Are we doing enough to connect digitally with the people we seek to serve? Are we using digital platforms to the fullest possibility?’” Bashe said. “‘The answer to that is to do more – to do more with these platforms and to recognize that these are just not technologies, that these are spaces where people converge and share information. Information and communication is part of the care — and part of the cure.”