Inside the White House-Facebook Rift Over Vaccine Misinformation

WASHINGTON – In March, Andy Slavitt, then a top pandemic adviser to President Biden, called Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, and issued an ominous warning.

For many weeks, Mr Slavitt and other White House officials had met with Facebook to urge the company to stop spreading misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. Many Americans who refused to get vaccinated had cited false stories they read on Facebook, including theories that the vaccinations could lead to infertility, stillbirth, and autism. Mr. Slavitt and other officials believed the executives were blaming themselves and resisting requests for information.

“In eight weeks,” Mr. Slavitt said to Mr. Clegg, “Facebook will be the No. 1 story of the pandemic. “

Mr. Slavitt’s prediction was not far off. About three months later, when Delta variant cases rose, Mr Biden said that Facebook was “killing people” – a comment that put the social network at the center of public discussion of the virus.

Mr Biden’s comment, which he later withdrew somewhat, was the culmination of increasingly combative meetings with the company over the spread of misinformation. Interviews with administrators, Facebook employees, and others with knowledge of the internal discussions revealed new details about those who participated in the talks and the issues that fueled the frustrations between the White House and the Silicon Valley titan.

The meetings involved the highest echelons on both sides, including those close to Facebook and those close to the administration who would only speak anonymously because the conversations were private. In March, Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg called Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, discussing health misinformation. The White House was so frustrated with Facebook’s responses in internal meetings that at some point it asked to hear from the company’s data scientists instead of lobbyists. And the country’s top doctor presented anecdotes to social media representatives of doctors and nurses who had interacted with Covid-19 patients who believed the wrong information.

Talks between the White House and Facebook continue. But the rift has complicated an already tumultuous relationship, just as Mr Biden suffers a setback in fighting the coronavirus. The White House missed its goal of providing 70 percent of American adults with at least one vaccination by July 4, and the highly contagious Delta variant has since fueled a surge in cases. The United States saw an average of more than 110,000 new daily cases for the past week, up from about 13,000 a month ago. In response, the government has reversed some public health advice, leaving many Americans at a loss about requirements like wearing masks.

The vast majority of new cases affect unvaccinated people. On Thursday, the White House urged pediatricians to incorporate vaccinations into school sports and encouraged schools to set up their own vaccination clinics. However, working closely with Facebook, by far the largest social network in the country, could be crucial in overcoming widespread vaccination hesitation and ultimately the pandemic.

“We’ve been looking into this with Facebook since the switch,” said Mike Gwin, a White House spokesman, “and we’ve made it clear to them if they haven’t lived up to our or their own standards and are actively promoting content on theirs Platforms that are misleading the American people. “

Facebook has backed up strongly against criticism from the White House, publicly accusing the government of scapegoating the company for failing to meet its vaccination goals. Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook, said the White House hadn’t given the company enough credit for promoting the vaccine. He said the social network worked with the White House “many months” to get people vaccinated and introduced features like prominent links to vaccination clinics.

“We are removing Covid-related content that violates our rules and continue to link to relevant health information on all Covid-related posts,” said Mr. Stone.

Mr Gwin said the government needed the help not only from Facebook but also from other technology platforms, elected leaders and the media to disseminate accurate information about the vaccine. However, aggressive condemnation of celebrity TV personalities in certain media outlets like Fox News could risk alienating some viewers and making them less likely to get vaccinated, government officials say.

The White House considers Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, to be particularly problematic, said some people close to the administration. Human rights lawyers and election officials have filed similar complaints in recent years about the company’s handling of misinformation. Executives point out steps that have been taken to provide factual information while avoiding responsibility for the falsehoods prevalent in their services.

Mr Biden’s frustrations with Facebook began before the pandemic. His team struggled with the company during its presidential campaign over its decision not to review political ads, especially after groups supporting Donald J. Trump ran ads making false claims about Mr Biden’s interactions with Ukrainian officials. At one point during the campaign, Mr. Biden described the company’s CEO as a “real problem” and added, “I’ve never been a huge Zuckerberg fan.”

After the election, Mr Biden’s transition team organized meetings with numerous organizations about Covid-19 misinformation, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, as well as Fox News and CNN.

At the meetings that began in December, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who was later appointed General Surgeon; DJ Patil, the chief technology officer for Mr. Biden’s transition team; and Rob Flaherty, Mr. Biden’s director of digital strategy. They said they wanted to make sure that people who are hesitant to get the vaccine can get accurate information about the shots.

Updated

Aug 10, 2021, 7:07 p.m. ET

Officials urged tech companies to stop spreading false statements about the virus. Officials also asked companies how many “fence sitters”, people who refused to be vaccinated, were exposed to misinformation on their websites.

Over the next few weeks, many of the social media companies struggled to eradicate misinformation about health. But some shared information the White House was looking for.

YouTube presented data showing that around 16 out of 10,000 views violated its content rules, despite not disclosing how much video content is related to Covid-19 misinformation. Twitter said it opened its data to researchers and academics to investigate the spread of misinformation on the site, and told the White House that it had created a “strike” system to improve police accounts, which most do Spread Covid misinformation.

Understand the state of vaccine mandates in the United States

Facebook provided information from its own data tracking tool, CrowdTangle, which is used by scholars and journalists. But Facebook officials, including Brian Rice, the company’s leading Democratic lobbyist at the White House, and Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s chief health officer, bypassed some requests for more information, some officials said.

When Mr. Patil asked for data on how often misinformation was viewed and disseminated, the company said it was unable to provide this type of data. Facebook told White House officials that it had been looking into content that wasn’t explicitly wrong, such as posts that cast doubts about vaccines but didn’t clearly violate the social network’s rules on health misinformation. Facebook allows people to share their experiences with vaccines, such as pain or side effects after vaccination, as long as they don’t specifically advocate untruths.

“Seriously?” Mr Patil texted the Biden team during the video call, someone familiar with the correspondence. “We have to leave the discussion points behind. People literally die. “

Facebook responded to some requests for information by discussing strategies to promote vaccines, officials and people familiar with the meetings said. The company found that it conducted surveys of how many Facebook users were vaccinated in the United States and that the company used its software to amplify pro-vaccination messages and direct people to vaccination clinics.

For government officials, Facebook purposely made things difficult. No one understood the data through the social network better than Facebook, officials said, and they wanted the company to help them with the right questions.

Towards the end of the transition, Mr. Patil asked to meet with additional members of Facebook’s data science team, not lobbyists with no technical background, to find out where misinformation on the site came from and how widely it was spread through shares. Facebook said that Mr. Jin, an engineer who leads the company’s health efforts, attended many of the meetings.

White House director of digital strategy Mr Flaherty urged more information on what the company would do regarding posts that spread false information about vaccines but did not clearly violate the platform’s rules, such as widespread videos that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccines.

After Mr. Slavitt’s call to Mr. Clegg in March, the White House increased pressure on the company by hiring Dr. Murthy, the general surgeon, was involved.

At a meeting this spring, Dr. Murthy anecdotes from nurses and doctors. Health workers said Covid-19 patients were afraid to take the vaccine because they read false information on Facebook. Last month, Dr. Murthy made his criticism public and stated in his first formal statement to the country that misinformation was “an urgent threat to public health”.

The next day, Mr. Biden made his comment “killing people” and triggered a vicious back and forth. Mr Slavitt, who was divorced from the administration at the time, tried to play the role of mediator, encouraging Facebook to tone down the rhetoric, and advising the White House to come up with clear-cut solutions on how the platform could combat misinformation.

The government and Facebook resumed talks, and both sides agreed that they need to tone down their language. At a recent meeting, the Biden team, including Dr. Murthy and Mr Patil that vaccination efforts are stalling, medical officials are at risk and deaths could rise without further enforcement by the company, people familiar with the matter said.

At the end of the meeting, the two sides thanked each other for the openness and agreed to continue the meeting. They left with no concrete solutions.

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