Behind the scenes of the White House fight against Facebook over misinformation about anti-Covid vaccines

Washington — mid-July, a US President’s remarks, Joe Biden has put Facebook at the center of public discussion about the rise in Covid-19 cases in the country. The Democratic leader said social media is “killing people” by allowing propaganda about vaccines to be posted on his platform. It was the culmination of a series of increasingly belligerent meetings between the White House and the Silicon Valley titan.

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The meetings were attended by senior officials from both sides, people close to Facebook and the US government told the New York Times on condition of anonymity. In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called on White House chief of staff Ron Klein to discuss health misinformation. But the White House was so dismayed by Facebook’s responses that at one point it sought to speak to the company’s data scientists instead of lobbyists.

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Talks are on between the White House and Facebook. But the split has complicated an already strained relationship as Biden has suffered a setback in the fight against the coronavirus. the White House fail in your goal By July 4, 70% of American adults had been vaccinated with at least one dose, and the highly contagious delta variant further increased the number of infections.

The US averaged more than 110,000 new cases last week, up from nearly 13,000 a month earlier. In response, the government has reversed some public health recommendations, to the dismay of many Americans. Requirements such as withdrawal of use of masks, which was suspended in May.

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Most new cases occur in unvaccinated people. On Thursday, the White House urged pediatricians to incorporate vaccinations into back-to-school sports physicals and encouraged schools to create their own vaccination clinics. But a close collaboration with Facebook, the country’s largest social network by far, could be the key to overcoming widespread hesitation about vaccines and, ultimately, the pandemic.

“We have engaged with Facebook on this issue since the transition, and we have made it clear to them that when they do not meet our standards, or our own standards, and actively promote content on their platform mislead the American people,” White House spokesman Mike Gwynn said.

Facebook strongly resisted criticism from the White House, publicly accusing the government of using the company as a scapegoat for the government’s failure to meet vaccination goals. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the White House did not give the company due credit for promoting the vaccine. He said the social network has been working with the White House to vaccinate people for “several months,” introducing features such as vital links to vaccination clinics.

“We have removed COVID-related content that violates our rules and continue to link to official health information in all COVID-related posts,” Stone said.

Controversy since the 2020 election

Biden’s frustration with Facebook began before the pandemic. His team clashed with the company during the presidential campaign over its decision not to verify the content of political ads, notably by Donald Trump’s support groups for circulating material with false allegations about Biden’s conversations with Ukrainian officials. Afterwards. At one point during the campaign, Biden described the company’s CEO as having a “real problem” and said that “I was never a big Zuckerberg fan.”

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Following the election, Biden’s transition team scheduled meetings with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, as well as with a number of organizations regarding COVID-19 misinformation, including Fox News and CNN. He asked tech companies to avoid spreading false claims about the virus and asked how many “unsure” people were exposed to false information on their platforms.

YouTube presented data showing that about 16 out of 10,000 views violated its content rules, although it did not specify how much of the video content was related to misinformation about COVID-19. Twitter said it had opened its data to researchers and academics to study the spread of disinformation and told the White House it has created a system of “attacks” to better monitor accounts that share most of the information about the pandemic. spreads disintegration.

Facebook provided the information from its proprietary data tracking tool, CrowdTangle, which is used by academics and journalists. But officials at the White House, including the firm’s top Democratic lobbyist Brian Rice and Facebook’s health chief Kang-Jing Jin, have avoided some requests for more information, people close to the administration said.

When the White House asked for data on how often misinformation was viewed and disseminated, the company said it could not provide it. Facebook told the US government that it is battling content that was not clearly fake, such as posts that cast doubt on vaccines but clearly violate the social network’s rules about false health information. do not. Facebook allows people to express their experiences with vaccines, such as pain or side effects after receiving an injection, as long as they don’t explicitly support the lie.

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The company also noted that it conducted research into how many Facebook users were vaccinated in the US, saying it used its software to amplify pro-vaccine messages and direct people to vaccination clinics. did. But Facebook was intentionally making things difficult for government officials. Employees said, no one understood the data about the social network better than Facebook and they wanted the company to help guide them to the right questions.

Days after saying that social networks like Facebook are “killing people”, Biden softened his tone and resumed conversations with the help of a former adviser. Both sides agreed on the need to de-escalate tensions.

At a recent meeting, Biden’s team insisted that vaccination efforts have stalled, putting medical officials at risk and that deaths could rise without further monitoring by the company, people familiar with the matter said. At the end of the meeting, both sides expressed their gratitude for the clarity and agreed to continue the meeting, but left without a concrete solution.

About the author: Muhammad Wayne

Wayne is a reporter who covers everything from oil trading to China's biggest conglomerates and technology companies. Originally from Chicago, he is a graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.

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