What Biden’s spat with Facebook means for vaccine misinformation

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Amid stalling vaccination rates and an uptick in COVID-19 cases nationwide, President Biden last week took aim at social media companies for failing to stamp out widespread vaccine misinformation.

“They’re killing people,” Biden said on Friday, when asked if he had a message to companies like Facebook that allow mistruths and conspiracies about the vaccine to spread to millions of people on their platforms. Facebook pushed back on Biden’s critique the next day in a blog post that accused the administration of “finger-pointing” over the disappointing vaccine numbers. The president softened his criticism later, saying it was the peddlers of disinformation, not the companies themselves, that are killing people.

Even Biden’s tempered comments — along with statements from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and White House press secretary Jen Psaki — represent a significant escalation in rhetoric designed to pressure Big Tech companies into taking more aggressive action against the most prolific purveyors of vaccine information. Specific attention has been paid to the “Disinformation Dozen,” a group of 12 people identified in one study as responsible for 65 percent of all COVID-19 conspiracy theories online.

Coronavirus deaths in the United States have trended upward recently, after declining steadily for months as the highly contagious Delta variant has taken hold. Nearly all severe COVID-19 cases have occurred among the unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, vaccination rates across the country have stagnated, from more than 3 million doses per day at the peak of the rollout to roughly 500,000 doses per day over the past week. Polls show that belief in conspiracies about the vaccines is one of the primary reasons that a large number of Americans are declining to get vaccinated.

Why there’s debate

The presence of vaccine misinformation on social media, particularly on Facebook, is well documented. But there’s debate among experts over whether Biden’s direct-pressure campaign on Big Tech is an effective tactic for combating the forces that fuel vaccine hesitancy.

Supporters of the strategy say Biden has correctly identified social media as one of the most pernicious sources of anti-vaccine conspiracies. Facebook and other platforms, they argue, are built in a way that allows misinformation to spread rapidly and makes it difficult for truth to break through. Pressuring these companies to take more aggressive steps against the worst offenders could mean millions of people aren’t subjected to bad information that convinces them to avoid the vaccine, they say.

Many conservatives express concern about the Biden administration playing a role in deciding what counts as truth on social media, a step they say could very easily slip into government censorship that endures long after the pandemic is over. Facebook’s defenders also point to a long list of steps the company has already taken to address misinformation around the pandemic.

Some misinformation experts, on the other hand, say public criticism isn’t nearly enough to combat a problem and entrenched and widespread as online misinformation. Truly addressing the issue, they argue, would require bolder steps that force the companies to reorient their business models so that users aren’t rewarded for posting controversial content or even breaking up the Big Tech companies. Others say focusing on social media ignores the harm caused by right-wing politicians and far-right media figures who are also major drivers of anti-vaccine rhetoric.

Perspectives

Users shouldn’t be punished for questioning the scientific consensus

“Time and time again, Big Tech’s attempts to block misinformation have prevented the public from having access to accurate or at least plausible viewpoints and theories. … Given their past failures, it is clear that these tech companies cannot serve as the arbiters of scientific truth. When new research comes out every day, social media platforms shouldn’t ‘impose consequences’ on users simply because they have a different point of view.” — Samuel Kim, Washington Examiner

Anything short of breaking up Big Tech will fail

“Fundamentally, the problem here is that our policy regime encourages the consolidation of power. The right way to address it is simple. Congress should pass laws breaking up big tech firms and banning surveillance advertising models.” — Matt Stoller, research director, American Economic Liberties Project

Government interference in social media is a threat to free speech

“Coming to terms with the importance of free speech means coming to terms with the reality that free speech will sometimes be used for purposes we abhor. We protect bad speech because we understand that the alternative, in the form of censorship, is worse.” — Bret Stephens, New York Times

The problem is so much bigger than what’s posted on social media companies

“Ultimately, focusing primarily on social media fails to address the source of the disinformation. … Bottom line: This monster is much bigger and formidable than Facebook or social media.” — Peter J. Hotez, Daily Beast

Online misinformation is absolutely killing people

“For social media companies, misinformation is like secondhand smoke, spreading falsehoods to millions before the truth can be known. It causes harm to the public’s health by contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sometimes prompting life-and-death decisions based on lies.” — Joan Donovan and Jennifer Nilsen, NBC News

Confronting social media companies head-on is bound to backfire

“The new White House strategy of directing Facebook to put a crimp on misinformers might prompt a few spectacular headlines. It might persuade Facebook to throttle Covid misinformation. It might earn a few attaboys from public health types. But so far, the effort seems to be backfiring, especially among conservatives and social media users who have criticized the government for censoring Covid- and vaccine-related information it opposes.” — Jack Shafer, Politico

Misinformation isn’t the root cause of vaccine rejection

“Misinformation isn’t really the cause of people refusing the COVID-19 vaccination. It’s just the excuse people are wielding to justify an extremely stupid choice to risk their own health to demonstrate their tribalist loyalties to the Republican Party and their hatred of the Democrats. In this particular chicken-and-egg situation, the rejection of the vaccine comes first, and the lies are spread to rationalize a decision that’s already been made.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon

Too much focus on Facebook lets other bad actors off the hook

“I’m a little uncomfortable with the obsession over Facebook, as if it’s the only source of misinformation and disinformation about vaccines.” — Brian Stelter, CNN

Calling out Facebook may not be effective, but it’s Biden’s only available option

“All the administration and responsible public figures can do is warn the public about the lies they are fed, and try to shame media companies and right-wing politicians into curbing their deadly disinformation campaigns.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Getting rid of the worst conspiracy peddlers would make a real difference

“The good news is that we might actually be able to stop the anti-vaxxers. … If the social media platforms will simply shut down their accounts … we will see a dramatic reduction in false vaccine information, virtually overnight.” — Steven Salzberg, Forbes

Not enough attention is being paid to right-wing anti-vaccine rhetoric

“Facebook *did improve*. And now, despite the focus on the Disinformation Dozen, perhaps the largest amplifier of COVID health misinfo has been figures like [GOP lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene] & Tucker Carlson. Media. Politicians with huge platforms. That must be emphasized.” — Online misinformation researcher Renee DiResta

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