Why Biden Softened On Facebook Over COVID Misinformation

WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) – When U.S. President Joe Biden accused Facebook of “killing people” by spreading vaccine lies in July, many experts and researchers hoped it marked the start of a battle for White House against a flood of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the United States.

Six months later, the deluge of disinformation continues and entities fighting against harmful information want the White House to do more. Deaths from COVID-19 recently reached their highest level in almost a year, with more than 2,600 people die on average each day. American studies show that the unvaccinated die at much higher rates than those who received shots and booster shots.

“The issue of vaccine misinformation was big a year ago and it’s still big now,” said David Lazer, who co-directs the Covid States Project. Countering disinformation “requires focus, attention and continuous effort”, he said.

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After criticizing Facebook on July 16, Biden never again publicly accused Facebook or any other company by name of spreading misinformation, according to a Reuters analysis of the president’s speeches and remarks since that day. Biden has given 24 speeches on COVID specifically, including town halls, since calling Facebook, according to the analysis.

Interviews with 11 White House sources, experts and researchers who have worked with the Biden administration on this topic show that top White House aides believe Biden has few legal options to force social media platforms to comply and the administration has been unable to settle on a strategy to rein in Silicon Valley. Several pieces of legislation aimed at holding social media companies accountable have stalled.

Biden also did not issue an executive order or proclamation to combat misinformation as he has done nearly three dozen times on other pandemic issues, according to a Reuters tally of White House records.

A dozen disinformation superspreaders identified by the White House and the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCHR) last year, still hold more than 40 accounts on Facebook (FB.O), owned by Meta Platforms Inc, Alphabet’s YouTube (GOOGL.O) and other social networks. media companies, with millions of followers, in December.

The White House “has been in regular contact with social media platforms, as well as with leaders and the media about the critical importance of ensuring they are not peddling false information,” an official said. the White House. These meetings, the official said, include discussions about the work these entities are doing to combat harmful information and hold them accountable.

A majority of healthcare workers in January survey conducted by the COVID States Projectan American research group trying to understand why so many Americans don’t want to get vaccinated says that misinformation about vaccines is “the most important factor influencing unvaccinated patients’ decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19”.

Social media – especially Facebook – remains one of the most frequently cited sources of misinformation negatively impacting patients, healthcare workers said in the survey.

A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment, but the company previously said it removed more than 24 million COVID-19 content globally and posted warnings on more than 195 million COVID-related content on Facebook. for violating its policies.

A YouTube spokesperson said the company has shut down the channels of several well-known spreaders of vaccine misinformation and since October 2020 has removed more than 130,000 videos for COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.

THE SECTION 230 PROBLEM

Biden has no easy legal options as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects social media companies from being liable for what users post on their platforms, White House sources, experts say. and researchers who have worked with the White House on this topic.

“The administration…is actually way too comfortable with tech companies, of course there’s institutional resistance at the official level,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which engaged with the White House. last year on the issue. “This poses a serious problem when looking to legislate and fight against corporations.”

Tech companies have been among the top donors to Biden’s campaign and now former Silicon Valley insiders hold key positions in the administration.

Two White House sources, who worked on the issue last year, said the reason Biden backed down was due to few legal options and disagreement within the White House over how tough the technology companies.

“The best we can do is urge companies to take action and we have largely done that in the past year,” one of the sources said.

Senior White House officials held a series of combative meetings with social media companies, and Facebook in particular, until last July to get the company and others to take action against vaccine misinformation. Publicist Jen Psaki and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, among others, have also publicly criticized the platforms.

The growing pressure culminated in Biden’s off-the-cuff comments on July 16. Since then, Biden has refrained from directly blaming social media companies by name.

Biden has addressed harmful information on social media platforms four times since July 16. Twice he backtracked on his Facebook comments: he said “Facebook doesn’t kill people” on July 19 and added “I wasn’t attacking Facebook” on July 22.

He also mentioned the word “misinformation” in the context of it being an issue, without mentioning the role that specific social media companies are playing, six times since July 16.

A surgeon general’s opinion on health misinformation in the United States, released after Biden’s remark in July, focuses on how communities can combat it, not the companies spreading it. The recent controversy involving Spotify’s (SPOT.N) role in spreading misinformation about COVID has drawn boilerplate criticism from the White House, saying companies should do more to stop such content.

Hany Farid, a computer science professor and disinformation researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, last year urged the White House domestic policy team to do more to combat disinformation.

Farid said he hadn’t seen a “consistent or cohesive message” from the White House and wanted to see more leadership on the subject publicly. “I haven’t seen a message from the White House … to Congress to be serious about this.”

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Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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