WASHINGTON – President Biden released his growing frustration on social media on Friday, saying that platforms like Facebook are “killing people” by allowing disinformation about the coronavirus vaccine to spread online.
Mr Biden’s haunted statement limited weeks of anger in the White House over the spread of vaccine disinformation online, even as the pace of vaccinations slows and health officials warn of the rising danger of the Delta variant.
Just before boarding Marine One for a weekend at Camp David, Maryland, Mr Biden was asked what his message was on social media platforms regarding Covid-19 disinformation.
“They kill people,” he said. “Look, the only pandemic we have is unvaccinated, and that – and they kill people.”
Mr Biden’s comments signaled a more aggressive approach to vaccine hesitation after weeks of getting Americans to get vaccinated and sending officials and volunteers door-to-door to encourage people to get vaccinations. He spoke a day after the United States surgeon general used his first formal recommendation to criticize technology and social media companies for stopping dangerous health information that “poses an urgent public health threat.”
The Biden government has warned of the spread of misinformation about vaccines and the coronavirus from a number of sources, including politicians and news outlets. But this week White House officials went further and selected social media companies for allowing false information to be spread. It came after weeks of unsuccessful attempts to get Facebook to release information about the mechanisms used to combat misinformation about the vaccine, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“Our point is that there is information that is causing people not to take the vaccine and people to die from it,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, before Mr Biden made his comments. “And we have a public health responsibility to address this issue.”
Spreading false information has become the newest hot spot for social media companies. Facebook and other social media sites are grappling with their role as a platform for speech while protecting their users from disinformation campaigns such as Russian efforts to influence presidential elections or false statements about the pandemic.
Facebook rejected the president’s claim.
“We do not allow ourselves to be distracted by allegations that are not supported by the facts,” said Dani Lever, a company spokeswoman. She pointed to efforts to promote authoritative information about Covid-19 and vaccines that two billion people viewed on the platform.
Conservative news media figures and political leaders have defied Democrats’ demands to take action against those who spread false information, calling the actions censorship and politically biased.
A day before Mr Biden’s statement, Ms. Psaki said the Biden government had flagged “problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” raising questions about how the White House is messaging the First Amendment rights of online users that undermine public health.
July 16, 2021, 8:21 p.m. ET
Ms Psaki said the government had recommended platforms develop an enforcement strategy against those who make false statements about the pandemic, adding that 12 people who produced 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media are on Facebook stayed active. Ms. Psaki appeared to be referring to statistics from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that aims to combat disinformation.
“You shouldn’t be blocked by one platform or by others,” said Ms. Psaki.
In response to questions on Friday about a possible federal government handover in encouraging Facebook to remove the posts, Ms Psaki said it was a public health issue.
“We spoke to them in our direct channels, which every administration has always had with every social media platform, that we are seeing this trend,” she said. “It’s unsettling. This information is inaccurate. “
Since January, senior White House officials, including Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, talking to the social media company to stop the spread of false stories about vaccine side effects and other harms.
Despite repeated requests from the White House, according to the person familiar with the talks, Facebook hasn’t even released basic data on how much misinformation there is about vaccines and whether the company’s efforts to stop its spread are working. When administrative officials submitted data from CrowdTangle, a content tracking tool operated by Facebook, which showed that vaccine misinformation was increasing, company officials rejected its accuracy.
In another meeting with Dr. Murthy officials on Facebook noted that attempts were made to get large audiences “influencers” to promote vaccinations as an obvious push against misinformation, the person familiar with the meetings said. Dr. Murthy angrily said that while the company backed its vaccination promotion efforts, it wasn’t doing enough to defend itself against bad information.
In a tense meeting in late spring, a Facebook official responded defensively, according to a person familiar with the matter, “How do you know your efforts are working?”
Mr Biden’s comments on Friday came because less than 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated and many top health experts have urged the president to do more to reach people who haven’t yet been vaccinated.
While hospital admissions remain low compared to the peak of the pandemic, local hot spots are emerging as public health officials warn of the spread of the Delta variant. Republican leaders, some of whom have spread disinformation about the vaccine, have begun to campaign harder to ensure that the virus spreads to conservative communities. The vaccines are effective against the Delta variant.
The White House has attempted a campaign-style grassroots effort to encourage Americans to get their vaccinations and has recruited volunteers to go door-to-door to provide accurate information about vaccines.
Government officials were particularly concerned about the hesitation rates of young adults and even recruited 18-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo to the White House this week to promote vaccinations.
The White House has also sent senior officials across the country to promote the vaccine, with some officials even arguing on social media.