US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy publicly doubled down on criticism of Facebook for spreading vaccine misinformation, after The Social Network™ rejected his previous criticism and President Joe Biden's assertion it is "killing people".
Things began to heat up between the Biden administration and Facebook last Thursday, when Murthy appeared in a White House press briefing to discuss stalled US vaccination rates.
Although 160 million people and counting are fully vaccinated, two thirds of people who are not hesitate due to common myths about the vaccine, Murthy said. He announced he was therefore issuing a Surgeon General's Advisory on the dangers of health misinformation.
Simply put, health [mis]information has cost us lives.
Although the Surgeon General did not explicitly call out Facebook, he did allude to some of the site's features – including Like buttons, sharing, and algorithms that "[pull] us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation". He then laid out a six-pronged strategy for fighting misinformation, with tech companies called out as follows:
We're saying we expect more from our technology companies. We're asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We're asking them to monitor misinformation more closely. We're asking them to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.
Although Murthy held back from naming names, Press Secretary Jenn Psaki did not in the media Q&A session, calling Facebook out for giving voice to "12 people who are producing 65 per cent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms" and allowing those users to remain online while potentially amplifying their output.
In informal remarks the next day, President Biden told a reporter his message to platforms like Facebook was "they are killing people" – adding that "the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated".
Not happy to be accused of murder, Facebook's Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen sharply rebuked the assertion in a blog post entertainingly titled Moving Past the Finger Pointing. The post included the following:
At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies.
Rosen then claimed that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the US has increased, before launching into a long list of Facebook's efforts and achievements in the arena of COVID-19 truthing. These efforts include a vaccine finder tool for Americans, a frame people can place on their profile picture to brag about their vaccine status, the removal of 18 million instances of COVID-related misinformation, and the reduced visibility of 167 million pieces of debunked content.
"In fact, we've already taken action on all eight of the Surgeon General's recommendations on what tech companies can do to help," wrote Rosen, calling the quantum of resources Facebook has deployed toward fighting the pandemic "unprecedented".
The administration counter-punched on Sunday when Murthy appeared on CNN's political talk show State of the Union.
Host Dana Bush revealed that a Facebook official told CNN the White House privately praised Facebook for their efforts and was looking for a scapegoat for missing vaccine goals.
After acknowledging that praise happens when praise is due, Murthy did not back down:
The platforms have to recognize they play a major role in the increase and speed and scale with which misinformation is spreading.
Platforms like Facebook have long used the comfort of echo chambers and confirmation bias as a business model. The social rewards gained by these interactions make eradication of misinformation a nuanced process, difficult to complete no matter what kind of whack-a-mole game a platform offers through pop-up messages or taking down memes.
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Back in mid-May Biden announced that it was a "great day for America" after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed federal masking guidelines, advising fully vaccinated people that they no longer needed to wear masks.
At the time, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was already ravaging India.
The White House narrowly missed its goal to have 70 per cent of the US adult population vaccinated by 4 July 2021, hitting 67 per cent instead. ®