White House looks to cool battle with Facebook

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The White House on Monday sought to cool its heated confrontation with Facebook, which had festered over the weekend after President Biden accused the social media giant of “killing people” with misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.

The unusual attack by Biden had triggered a tough response from Facebook, and on Monday the president and his aides were clearly looking to bring down the temperature.

Biden, less than 72 hours after his initial remarks, said that “Facebook isn’t killing people” and rephrased his original comments as being about 12 people on Facebook who have been accused of spreading disinformation.

Those “12 people who are out there giving misinformation — anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information,” Biden told reporters. “My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally — that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people — that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine. That’s what I meant.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed throughout a briefing with reporters that the administration was not “at war” with the technology giant and that the coronavirus was a common enemy.

Psaki would not specify whether White House officials and Facebook officials spoke over the weekend but said the administration is in regular contact with social media companies.

“We are at war with the virus, and we have been in regular touch since the beginning of the administration, as we knew that there are a range of entities, platforms, media organizations, public officials who all have a role in combating misinformation,” Psaki said. “This is not personal. It is about fighting a virus that is still killing thousands of people. That is our objective.”

It’s unclear what prompted the shift in tone from the White House, though Facebook’s role in COVID-19 misinformation has clearly been on the administration’s radar for some time now.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain told Kara Swisher on her podcast posted in early June that he raised concerns directly with Mark Zuckerberg earlier in the year.

“Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg speaks for himself,” Klain told Swisher on the podcast. “He certainly can. But I think that there is just no question that a lot of misinformation about the vaccines is coming from postings on Facebook.”

Coronavirus cases have surged in the last few weeks on the back of the highly contagious delta variant. Recent deaths and hospitalizations are almost entirely made up of unvaccinated individuals, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call the latest wave a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

However, the proportion of adults with at least one dose has begun to plateau just below the 70 percent target the administration had set for July 4.

There are myriad reasons Americans have not yet gotten vaccinated, including misinformation-driven hesitancy and outright opposition.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last week released a whole-of-society approach to tackle the spread of misinformation. His approach faults social media but also traditional media organizations for facilitating the spread of misinformation.

Going after Facebook and online platforms like Biden did Friday may have been “a little distracting” from Murthy’s more comprehensive view, according to Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

“This is a complex problem that emerges from a very varied network of sources of misinformation, not just social media but also Fox News and even more extreme news outlets like Newsmax and OANN [One America News Network],” he said. 

Several Fox News figures on Monday urged viewers of the network to get vaccinated following criticism of prime-time host Tucker Carlson. White House correspondent Peter Doocy spoke directly to viewers, stating, “If you have the chance, get the shot. It will save your life.”

The walk-back by Biden on Monday was seen by many as the White House backing down after Facebook accused the administration of “looking for scapegoats for missing their vaccine goals.”

One source close to the administration, however, said the White House is serious about upping the pressure on Facebook to do more to curb misinformation.

In the meantime, Biden officials have made a point to appeal to companies such as Facebook to do the right thing to help end the pandemic.

“I’m trying to make people look at themselves,” Biden said Monday. “Look in the mirror. Think about that misinformation going to your son, your daughter, your relatives, someone you love. That’s what I’m asking.”

It is unclear what the White House could actually do to compel social media companies to tackle misinformation.

Psaki said last week that the White House is “flagging problematic posts” for platforms, something that could run afoul of the First Amendment, especially with the government actively suing Facebook over alleged antitrust violations. Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) both seized on those comments to claim collusion between the administration and social media.

When asked about potential regulatory action against Facebook on Monday, Psaki punted the question to Congress while noting that nothing is off the table.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) over the weekend re-upped her proposal to tweak online platforms’ liability protections to hold them accountable for content posted on their websites that poses harm to individuals, including coronavirus misinformation.

Barrett suggested that Congress could authorize the Federal Trade Commission to sit down with platforms to iron out content moderation transparency rules. 

“The government needs to find a way to focus on … what kind of affirmative regulation would be appropriate,” he said.

Biden said he was still waiting to see what action Facebook might take but indicated he wasn’t satisfied with their actions to combat misinformation as of Sunday.

“Over the weekend, I don’t think they had,” Biden said. “But I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Coronavirus COVID-19 Facebook Jen Psaki Joe Biden Josh Hawley Mark Zuckerberg Marsha Blackburn Ron Klain Tucker Carlson vaccine misinformation Vivek Murthy
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