July 19, 2021 by Ethics in Tech board member Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams
U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday clarified his remarks from last week that social media companies like Facebook are “killing people” by allowing the spread of Covid-19 misinformation, explaining instead that users are posting deadly “bad information.”
Last Friday, Biden responded to a reporter’s question about Covid-19 misinformation on social media platforms by saying “they’re killing people” and that “the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated.”
Asked on Monday about his comment, Biden replied, “I meant precisely what I said.”
“Facebook isn’t killing people—these 12 people are out there giving misinformation,” the president said, echoing comments by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Friday that a dozen people are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all anti-vaccine posts on social media, and that “all of them remain active on Facebook.”
Biden said that “anyone listening” to the misinformation “is getting hurt by it.”
“It’s killing people,” he reiterated. “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,” said Biden. “That’s what I meant.”
The White House remarks on Friday followed U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s issuance of an advisory entitled Confronting Health Misinformation(pdf), which calls on “all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.”
Appearing on CNN Sunday, Murthy backed up the White House’s Friday comments by saying: “I’ve been very consistent in what I have said to the technology companies… health misinformation harms people’s health. It costs them their lives.”
The Real Facebook Oversight Board—a self-described “emergency response to the ongoing harms on Facebook’s platforms from leading global scholars, experts, and advocates”—defended Biden’s remarks from last week in a Sunday Medium post stating that “Facebook’s lack of oversight and any coherent content moderation strategy is driving vaccinations down and Covid infections up.”
The group noted that “11 out of the top 15 vaccine related-posts on Facebook last week were disinformation or anti-vaccine.”
“Facebook has a Covid disinformation problem because Facebook has a right-wing extremism problem,” the post asserted. “By remaining the platform of choice for insurrectionists, extremists, and far right radicals, Facebook continues to wallow in filth—from QAnon to January 6th to Covid disinformation.”
In a Saturday blog post entitled “Moving Past the Finger Pointing,” Facebook vice president of integrity Guy Rosen wrote that “the data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the U.S. have been or want to be vaccinated against Covid-19.”
“President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed,” Rosen added.
Biden’s remarks about Facebook ignited a firestorm of right-wing backlash, including more misinformation. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweetedthat “this is how communism starts.”
“The White House is working with Facebook to censor your post which is violating your free speech because people want to discuss… a non-FDA approved vaccine that the Biden administration wants to force you to take,” Greene lied. Her tweet was the top vaccine-related post in the U.S. on Friday, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social insights tool.
The Facebook fracas comes as the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is largely responsible for a 70% surge in new U.S. infections last week, with hospitalizations up by more than one-third.Less than half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, with the nation’s inoculation drive stalled amid hesitancy partially driven by misinformation.