Last Friday, Joe Biden told reporters that Facebook was “killing people” by refusing to take action on a number of anti-vax accounts spreading conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and other misinformation about the novel coronavirus pandemic—causing the social network to respond with faux indignation. Now Biden is walking that back, sort of, saying that while he meant what he said, he hopes Facebook and the public took him seriously but somewhat less than literally.
Biden’s initial comments referred to a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate that identified a handful of accounts—including antivax mainstay Robert F. Kennedy Jr., disgraced researcher Joseph Mercola, and others including Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, and Ty & Charlene Bollinger—as being disproportionately responsible for a flood of content promoting inaccurate information about vaccines on social media sites. Facebook has taken little serious enforcement action against these accounts, even after RFK Jr. managed to get himself banned on subsidiary Instagram.
Facebook deflected with a press release over the weekend that decried “finger-pointing” and argued the site was actually reducing levels of vaccine hesitancy, pointing to statistics showing increased public levels of willingness to take the vaccine in the U.S. and arguing that Facebook was also the source of large amounts of accurate information about vaccines. The company’s points don’t hold up. For example, Facebook said it reduced the distribution of 167 million pieces of covid-19 content debunked by fact-checkers, meaning it was left up with labels or slowed-down distribution. As the Washington Post pointed out, Facebook hasn’t been forthcoming as to how widely antivax information has been shared or engaged with on the site. That conveniently leaves the scope of the problem unclear, though one can infer a lot from how the company has tried to shove similar problems like the deluge of far-right clickbait on the site under a rug.
Facebook also fought back less politely, with one anonymous executive telling CNN over the weekend that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy had praised its anti-disinformation work in private and that the White House was looking for a “scapegoat.”
The White House isn’t totally backing down, but the president also appears to have concluded he went slightly too far by calling the site directly responsible for unnecessary deaths caused by antivax propaganda. Per CNN, Biden told reporter Kaitlan Collins on Monday that he “meant precisely what I said” and “I’m glad you asked me that question.”
“Facebook isn’t killing people—these 12 people are out there giving misinformation,” Biden said. “Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information. 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,” Biden continued.
Biden also added he was simply trying to force Facebook to reconsider its position on moral grounds. He said he was “not trying to hold people accountable, I’m trying to make people look at themselves, look in the mirror.”
“Think about that misinformation going to your son, your daughter, your relative, someone you love. That’s what I’m asking,” he concluded. (That’ll work!)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing last week that the administration was compiling antivax content circulating on Facebook and proposed major changes to moderation strategies at social media firms, such as creating a “robust enforcement strategy” and taking faster action against harmful posts. Murthy also warned at the briefing that social media companies that promote “emotionally-charged content, not accurate content” were “[giving] us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation.” CNN separately reported that a source said meetings between the White House and Facebook on the issue have been increasingly “tense.”
On Monday, according to CNN, Psaki told reporters that while the Biden administration is “not in a war or battle with Facebook” but with the coronavirus pandemic, it hadn’t “taken any options off the table” in terms of regulatory actions that might be pursued. What steps it might take, if any, remain unclear. Psaki punted to Congress for specifics on any plan.
“That’s up to Congress to determine how they want to proceed moving forward,” Psaki said.