Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Fox News reporter Peter Doocy tries to ask Joe Biden a question, which is ignored, as Biden leaves a campaign event at Jeno’s Little Hungary in Davenport, Iowa, on Jan. 28, 2020. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The White House press briefing room has been a little more boring over the past six months, which is probably a good thing. But there are occasional fireworks, mostly when Fox News’s Peter Doocy asks press secretary Jen Psaki to comment on the culture-war issue du jour on his network.

But seldom has that effort been as poorly conceived as it was Friday.

The White House announced a new effort this week to combat coronavirus misinformation on social media, particularly Facebook. It’s an effort that carries legitimate questions about what role the government should play in policing (or, in this case, helping to police) such things.

But that’s quite different from what Doocy accused the government of doing. And he did so based upon nothing but innuendo and a dumbfoundingly apparent lack of research.

Psaki had offered a statistic Thursday in her daily briefing: “There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. All of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms, including Facebook.”

When Friday’s briefing began, Doocy was raring to go. He accused the government of spying on people to obtain this stat.

“Speaking of misinformation and the announcement from yesterday,” Doocy began, “for how long has the administration been spying on people’s Facebook profiles, looking for vaccine misinformation?”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to Fox News’s Peter Doocy’s questions about misinformation on social media during a July 16 news conference. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

It wasn’t exactly clear what Doocy was talking about. But after Psaki responded that his premise was inaccurate, he made clear that this was about the “12 people” stat. Doocy cited the number and suggested that the government must have been snooping around people’s Facebook pages to arrive at it. He even specifically cited the surgeon general’s office specifically as having done so, for some reason.

“But, okay, so these 12 people who you have on a list — 12 individuals — do they know that somebody at the surgeon general’s office is going through their profile?” Doocy asked. He went on to compare the situation to “Big Brother.”

Even if the government were doing this, we would need to have a debate about whether looking at publicly available social media accounts is spying. But that’s not even what’s happening.

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy urged tech firms on July 16 “to swiftly and consistently take action against misinformation superspreaders on their platforms.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

I, like Doocy, was intrigued by where this number came from Thursday. I, unlike Doocy apparently, actually did 30 seconds of research on it. That’s all the time it took to find the publicly available study — which even has the number Psaki cited in its title, “The Disinformation Dozen” — from the Center for Countering Digital Hate. The study was picked up by the likes of NPR and others in May.

Nor did anything in Psaki’s comments Thursday suggest that this was from some kind of government study or research project. But Doocy jumped from her stat to not just assuming that it was, but also that this amounted to “spying” and that the “spying” was specifically done by the surgeon general’s office (perhaps because Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy appeared with Psaki on Thursday?).

This continues a long-standing, often tortured search on Fox for government spying on their allies. Amid the Russia investigation, it became an article of faith that the government had been spying on the Trump campaign. But that was undermined by both FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz.

More recently, in the last few weeks, Fox host Tucker Carlson has claimed with basically no evidence that the Biden administration was spying on him — and with an intent to take his show off the air, no less. Except Fox’s news side has shown remarkably little interest in reporting out this apparent bombshell story involving itself. And reporting suggests that this was what many suggested it might have been in the first place: Carlson reaching out to foreigners (apparently Russians) who were being monitored (as many foreigners are) and getting wrapped up in what’s known as “incidental surveillance.” In other words, Carlson wouldn’t have been the target.

At least with those things, we’re talking about the murky, shadowy world of government surveillance, where it’s difficult to fully prove or disprove something and lines are indeed often pushed or stepped over. The definition of “spying” is also subjective.

Doocy’s claim that the stat Psaki cited was proof of yet more supposed spying is just nonsensical, as he might have found had he done even the slightest bit of due diligence. But at least another spying conspiracy theory that can be turned into cable news segments has now been seeded.

Update: The Post’s Erik Wemple puts some meat on the bone when it comes to whether even the larger effort here could be deemed “spying."