WASHINGTON – Facebook and the Biden government had an increasingly vicious back and forth over the weekend after the government condemned the social media giant for spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines.
On Sunday, General Surgeon Vivek Murthy reiterated warnings that false stories about the vaccines had become a dangerous health hazard. “These platforms need to recognize that they have played an important role in increasing the speed and extent with which misinformation spreads,” Murthy said on CNN on Sunday.
In a blog post on Saturday, Facebook asked the administration to stop “pointing the finger” and set out what it had done to encourage users to vaccinate. The social network also described how it cracked down on lies about the vaccines, which officials said led to people refusing to be vaccinated.
“The Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,” said Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, in the post. “The fact is that the adoption of vaccines by Facebook users in the US has increased.”
Mr Rosen added that the company’s data showed that 85 percent of its users in the United States were or were about to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While President Biden’s goal was to have 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4th, which the White House missed, “Facebook isn’t the reason it missed that target,” Rosen said.
Facebook’s response followed a firm condemnation of the company by Mr Biden. When asked on Friday about the role of social media in influencing vaccinations, Mr Biden stated in unusually strong language that the platforms “kill people”.
“Look,” he added, “the only pandemic we have is that of the unvaccinated, and that – and they kill people.”
Other White House officials have also increasingly commented on how social media has stepped up vaccine flights.
On Thursday, Mr Murthy accused social media companies of not doing enough to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation about health, calling it a national health crisis that fueled refusal to vaccinate among Americans. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also called for misinformation “that is causing people not to take the vaccine and people to die from it.” She said the White House was responsible for bringing up the issue.
The White House declined to comment on Facebook’s blog post on Saturday.
On Sunday morning, Mr Murthy also responded to allegations made by a Facebook official who spoke anonymously to CNN, saying the government was looking for “scapegoats for missing its vaccination targets.”
July 18, 2021, 11:45 a.m. ET
The company representative told CNN before Mr Murthy’s appearance on the news network that Mr Murthy had “praised our work” in private conversations while he had publicly criticized the company.
Mr. Murthy disproved the characterization.
“I’ve been very consistent in what I’ve been saying to tech companies,” Murthy said Sunday morning on CNN. “If we see good steps, we should acknowledge them,” he said, adding, “But I also said that it was not enough. We are still seeing an increase in misinformation on the Internet. “
Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have long struggled with their role as platforms for speech while protecting their users from disinformation campaigns such as Russian efforts to influence presidential elections or false statements about the pandemic.
In the past few months, Facebook has taken steps against anti-vaccination advertisements and misrepresentation about the vaccines. In October, it announced that it would no longer allow ads against vaccinations on its platform. In February, the company went ahead and said it would remove false claims posts about vaccines, including claims that vaccines cause autism or that it is safer for people to contract the coronavirus than receiving the vaccinations.
But online misinformation about the vaccines has not been eradicated. Lies have been spread that vaccines can alter DNA or that vaccines won’t work.
On Saturday, Mr Rosen said in the blog post that American Facebook users’ reluctance to take vaccines had decreased by 50 percent since April and vaccine acceptance had increased by 10 to 15 percentage points, or from 70 percent to over 80 percent.
“Although social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a society-wide approach to end this pandemic,” said Rosen. “And facts – not allegations – should help support this effort.”
The White House’s frustration with Facebook has increased over several months, said those knowledgeable about the matter. While the Biden government asked Facebook to share information about the spread of misinformation on the social network, the company refused to cooperate, the people said.
Brian Boland, a former Facebook vice president responsible for partnership strategy, argued when he was with the company that it should publicly share as much information as possible about what is happening on its platform. When asked about the dispute with the White House on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, he said, “Facebook has this data” and added, “You’re looking at this.” But he asked, “Are you seeing it right? Are you investing as much in the teams as you should? “