One can quibble over whether Facebook or a mendacious Fox News host actually affects an individual’s decision to avoid vaccination, but it is hard to deny they can reinforce life-threatening behavior. (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.)
Once more playing the right-wing gotcha game, Fox News’s Peter Doocy on Friday, ostensibly in response to a comment made by White House press secretary Jen Psaki about the handful of people on Facebook who promote most anti-vaccine content on the platform, demanded to know why the White House is spying on people’s social media profiles. That was a ridiculous, demonstrably false assertion. Perhaps if Fox News personnel paid attention to credible news accounts, they would be less inclined to make such wild accusations.
NPR, for example, reported: “Researchers have found just 12 people are responsible for the bulk of the misleading claims and outright lies about COVID-19 vaccines that proliferate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.” The report cited Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, who told NPR: “The ‘Disinformation Dozen’ produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.” This is not the government “spying” on people or suppressing free speech. This is the administration reiterating independent research based on information in the public domain.
Psaki addressed the obviously false premise of Doocy’s question. “We’re in regular touch with all of you and your media outlets … as we are in regular touch with social media platforms. This is publicly open information, people sharing information online. Just as you are all reporting information on your news stations,”she said.
Later in the briefing she made crystal clear that the White House is not demanding these people be silenced; that is the sole purview of private companies, she correctly stated.
Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments. For example, a recent study showed that even brief exposure to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation made people less likely to want a COVID-19 vaccine. Misinformation has also led to harassment of and violence against public health workers, health professionals, airline staff, and other front line workers tasked with communicating evolving public health measures. Misinformation can sometimes be spread intentionally to serve a malicious purpose, such as to trick people into believing something for financial gain or political advantage. This is usually called “disinformation.”
The report urges media companies to “Implement product design and policy changes on technology platforms to slow the spread of misinformation.” Unfortunately, that has not been the case at Facebook and some right-wing outlets, which are incentivized to seek clicks and eyeballs, even with lies.
Disinformation spreaders, including elected officials such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), are putting people at risk. Not only do these voices discourage vaccination, and thereby endanger those inclined to follow their advice, they also put children too young to receive the vaccination at risk. It is hard to imagine a more disgraceful way to make money or advance one’s career. Rather than advance any “pro-life” agenda, vaccine disinformation has created a sort of right-wing death cult in which its members are willing to put themselves and their children in harm’s way to “own the libs.”
All the administration and responsible public figures can do is warn the public about the lies they are fed, and try to shame media companies and right-wing politicians into curbing their deadly disinformation campaigns. Unfortunately, media companies’ owners, executives, employees, board members and stockholders will likely refuse to stop promoting such content. As for right-wing politicians — many of whom also have peddled the “big lie” that the election was stolen and other conspiracy theories — we already know they are beyond shaming. Voters will have to decide whether to keep such irresponsible, immoral characters in government.