Feds step up pressure on social media over false COVID-19 claims

Social media companies are facing new pressure from the federal government to crack down on health misinformation as the Biden administration makes a push to encourage reluctant Americans to get COVID-19 vaccines. 

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Thursday stating that misinformation is an “urgent threat” and called on the tech companies he accused of amplifying the misinformation to take action to fight the false, and often dangerous, claims. 

“Health misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19. What’s different now is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading,” Murthy said at a White House briefing. 

The U.S. has fallen short of President Biden’s July 4 goal of 70 percent of adult Americans receiving at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine, the country’s vaccination rate has declined and the delta variant is spreading rapidly in unvaccinated pockets of the country. 

Now, as the administration is pushing to get Americans vaccinated, officials are fighting against a force of false anti-vaccination claims that researchers have identified across social media platforms. 

A report released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate earlier this year found that 12 accounts were responsible for up to 65 percent of anti-vaccine content, according to an analysis of more than 812,000 posts from Facebook and Twitter between Feb. 1 and March 16. 

“Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to the abusers,” Murthy said at Thursday’s briefing.  

“They’ve designed product features such as ‘like’ buttons that reward us for sharing emotionally charged content … and their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation,” he added. 

Biden issued a blunt rebuke of the social media platforms and the role they play in the spread of COVID-19 disinformation.  

“They’re killing people,” Biden told reporters Friday. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever pushed back on Biden’s assessment, saying in a Friday statement that the platform “will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts.”

Lever touted Facebook’s push to connect users with authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines. 

“The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period,” she said. 

Brittany Allen, a trust and safety architect at fraud prevention firm Sift, said a quick search for “vaccine kills” into Facebook on Friday morning led her to two public groups spreading misinformation about the vaccine with about 500 to 2,000 members. 

“Even though that seems like a small drop in the bucket for Facebook’s overall user base, the ability for something to spread via that share function is far higher in magnitude than just that number of group members,” Allen told The Hill. 

A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment when asked about the two groups Allen identified. 

Moreover, Allen said posts on the encrypted messaging app Telegram include screenshots from Facebook with misinformation.

“We can’t think of Facebook as this sort of siloed media entity either because of how easily it can be screenshotted or shared off platform,” Allen said. 

Misinformation experts warned about the threats posed by viral misinformation, both within the context of the pandemic and beyond, and some say the push from the administration may be pivotal in forcing the tech giants’ hands. 

“The surgeon general is jawboning the tech companies,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.

“It puts the tech companies on notice that people are paying attention a lot more than in the past. People get a lot of information from these social media sites, they really have a responsibility to combat misinformation,” he added. 

Prominent researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center wrote an op-ed published by NBC News calling the surgeon general’s advisory a “turning point in internet history.”

“In the same way his predecessor decades ago took on the tobacco companies, he is taking on the technology industry by defining how misinformation hurts Americans. In our view, this advisory shows that social media is a product in need of serious consumer protection regulations,” Shorenstein Center research director Joan Donovan and research fellow Jennifer Nilsen wrote. 

Although the spread of health misinformation didn’t begin with the pandemic, it drew attention to the issue and forced platforms to craft policies to moderate anti-vaccine content. 

Twitter, Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, have defended their policies put in place to combat COVID-19 misinformation despite the pushback from the White House and advocacy groups. 

A Facebook spokesperson touted the company’s partnership with government experts, health authority and researchers to “take aggressive action against misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to protect public health.” 

The spokesperson boasted that Facebook has removed “more than 18 million pieces of COVID misinformation” as well as accounts that “repeatedly break these rules.”

YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said the video-sharing platform removes content that violates its COVID-19 misinformation policies, demotes “borderline videos” and “prominently” surfaces authoritative content about COVID-19. 

A Twitter spokesperson said the platform will “continue to take enforcement action on content that violates our COVID-19 misleading information policy” and improve efforts to “elevate credible, reliable health information.”

Asked at a White House press briefing on Friday if she finds Facebook’s response “sufficient,” press secretary Jen Psaki said, “Clearly not.” 

“We’re talking about additional steps that should be taken,” Psaki said.

“We’re dealing with a life-or-death issue here, and so everybody has a role to play in making sure there’s accurate information. Obviously those are steps they have taken. They’re a private sector company. They’re going to make decisions about additional steps they can take. It’s clear that there are more that can be taken,” she added.

The surgeon general’s advisory further highlights the deep partisan divide on digital content moderation. 

Democrats in Congress have been pushing social media platforms to take greater action to combat misinformation online and argue the companies are not taking enough of a stance against false claims. Leading figures in that push, such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), cheered the advisory. 

Meanwhile, prominent Republicans continue to bash efforts to clamp down on misinformation online. 

Trump administration’s coronavirus testing czar Brett Giroir likened Murthy’s recommendations for platforms to crack down on misinformation to “government censorship.” 

“Government censorship of alternate views (even if wrong) will result in more mistrust of the government and worry about vaccines, not less,” Giroir tweeted.

His remarks echo claims congressional Republicans have leveled against the platforms, stating that they are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias. However, there has been a lack of evidence to back up the allegations.

In platforms released by top House GOP members on the Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees, tackling allegations of censorship is outlined as a top priority  

Given the political polarization, it’s unclear how big of a dent the advisory will make in helping combat online disinformation, said Saif Shahin, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communications.  

“People believe in pieces of disinformation because it fits within their sort of the larger narratives about the world and about society and America. So there is a significant demand for disinformation as well. People who are willing to believe certain things over others, whether they are true or not,” he said.

Even if mainstream platforms are able to be wiped of the false claims, new alternative platforms would fill the void, he added. 

“There will always be a new Parler,” he said, referring to the app that rose in popularity around the election due to its hands-off content moderation approach. “Or some other social media app that won’t be doing that.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Jen Psaki Joe Biden Mark Warner Vivek Murthy
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