Biden reined that in significantly Monday after strong pushback from Facebook. He said he blamed the misinformation for which websites such as Facebook provide a platform.
“Facebook isn’t killing people,” Biden said. He cited the 12 people a recent study said were spreading 65 percent of coronavirus vaccine misinformation on Facebook. “Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information. My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally … that they would do something.”
The flap reinforces the danger of the White House and the Biden administration going down this road. But the walk-back appears limited and is worth a parse.
On the one hand, there is no disputing that misinformation plagues Facebook. On the other hand, there is a valid debate to be had about what role the government has to play in combating it. Conservatives and other critics of the Biden administration’s effort have pitched it as more than it is, claiming the government would be effectively censoring people — or even “spying” on them. This despite the fact that Facebook would still be responsible for its editorial decisions and that the so-called spying allegation is far from what it’s cracked up to be.
But even if the government isn’t making the decisions, it matters when it comes to pressure being brought to bear. It might be Facebook’s decision, but what if a very powerful federal government issues threats — whether direct, implied or even suspected — about what it might do if that private company doesn’t play ball?
That’s where Biden’s comments Friday come in. It’s one thing to say that you should do a better job of rooting out misinformation; it’s another to say that your practices amount to “killing people.” The danger in this is when it becomes less that the government is pointing out speech that is false or harmful, and more when it begins to look like Facebook has little choice but to respond to the government’s wishes about its content.
The Biden administration has made a pretty evident and calculated decision here. It believes the benefit of more forcefully pushing to root out misinformation is worth a more heavy-handed approach, at least to some extent. It has to know that efforts to censor certain types of speech could go too far and boomerang on it — whatever its direct role — but we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and that speech can be particularly harmful when lives are literally on the line. The administration emphasized that over and over again, including Monday.
From there, it’s worth putting Biden’s walk-back in context.
It’s entirely possible this was the latest in a long history of overzealous comments from a president with a penchant for gaffes and straying from the party line. Remember when Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice president, came out in favor of same-sex marriage before that was the administration’s official stance?
Biden certainly has that in his locker today. Maybe he didn’t truly intend to accuse Facebook itself of killing people Friday, and just got caught up in the moment.
But also recall what happened with that gay marriage moment. Obama later recalled that Biden “probably got a little bit over his skis” in announcing such a position. But Obama also suggested that this was basically the emerging position of his administration. It wasn’t so much that Biden was saying something it didn’t believe, as much as that it wasn’t quite cleared for public consumption.
And if you look closely at how the Biden administration is still talking about this, it’s more difficult to dismiss this as just a wayward comment. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday: “We are not in a war or a battle with Facebook.” But she added, of possible regulatory or legal options: “I don’t think we’ve taken any options off the table. That’s up to Congress to determine how they want to move forward.”
Keeping “options” on “the table” is a pretty generalized comment that the White House employs frequently, and Psaki pitched this as Congress’s prerogative, rather than necessarily a regulatory issue for the administration. But if there’s anything the past few days have shown us, it’s that whatever direct pressure the administration would like to bring to bear on Facebook when it comes to anti-vaccine misinformation, it’s not really shying away from the idea that it could eventually be even more forceful.
Even Biden, in his extended comments, made abundantly clear that he still felt that the content Facebook was hosting was “killing people.” Saying that its content is “killing people” rather than the publisher of it is “killing people” is kind of a tomato-tomahto situation.
And that is more or less what critics of this are cautioning about. Conservative bomb-throwers are building this up into something amounting to direct government censorship. But a more realistic criticism is that it will force the hand of social media platforms to avoid more direct government intervention or bad publicity.
The administration is walking a delicate line by validly saying it’s not directly censoring while also using public pressure to get more of a response from a platform that, by just about any account, has been lax in allowing misinformation to spread.
Getting that balance right is extremely difficult and also has huge implications. What happened over the last few days would seem to be either a misstep or a telegraphing of a kind of good cop-bad cop routine.