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‘They’re killing people’: Biden aims blistering attack at tech companies over vaccine falsehoods

President Biden talks to reporters on July 16, 2021, before boarding Marine One on the White House grounds.
President Biden talks to reporters on July 16, 2021, before boarding Marine One on the White House grounds. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Friday unleashed a forceful new attack against social media companies for allowing the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, explicitly blaming them for the deaths of many Americans of covid-19.

“They’re killing people,” Biden said on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on his way to Camp David for the weekend. “Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Biden’s comments marked a far more combative tone than he had taken previously on the pandemic and came a day after Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a broader warning against health misinformation, saying that tech companies were partially responsible for the falsehoods spreading online and causing large numbers of Americans to avoid getting vaccinated.

Following President Biden’s comments that social media companies are “killing people” with coronavirus misinformation, politicians weighed in on July 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

The salvo immediately placed Biden in a public argument with Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, on an issue that has consumed his presidency and is showing new signs of resurgence.

“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said in a statement, pointing to the website’s tools for helping users to get authoritative information and find vaccination sites.

“The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives,” Lever said. “Period.”

The remarkable multi-front attack over the course of about 24 hours — from the president, his surgeon general and his press secretary — is a notable change in strategy for Biden. For six months, he has taken a gentler tone, praising Americans for getting vaccinated, imploring the hesitant to get the shots and avoiding attacks on figures who are falsely questioning the vaccines.

Biden’s comments also come as senior administration officials are increasingly concerned about a notable increase in coronavirus infections, with new outbreaks particularly in areas with low vaccination rates.

Vaccine hesitancy morphs into vaccine hostility

Less than two weeks after holding a 1,000-person gathering at the White House — where Biden declared on the Fourth of July, “The virus is on the run, and America’s coming back” — there is concern in the administration that parts of the country may need to reinstitute restrictive measures as the more contagious delta variant rips through parts of the country and threatens the progress Biden has spent months touting.

Vaccination rates have meanwhile stalled, even as the administration has tried new ways to encourage Americans to get their shots. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo appeared with Biden on Wednesday, and the White House has been promoting other ways to encourage vaccinations, including at NASCAR races and highway truck stops.

One reason vaccination rates are not higher, administration officials believe, is the misinformation about them that has spread for months online. In some ways, the back-and-forth resembles the earlier furor over social media platforms allowing election-related disinformation, a controversy that resulted in some of the tech companies instituting more safeguards.

Twitter on Friday declined to comment on Biden’s remarks, pointing to a tweet on Thursday in which the company said, “We’ll continue to do our part to elevate authoritative health information.” YouTube also did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Biden’s remarks.

But top White House officials have been unsatisfied with the response from social media companies and over the past two days grew far more outspoken about their concerns. They have called on the platforms to make it harder for users to spread false information and have proposed greater investments in content moderation, especially in languages other than English. They also want more action on detecting “super spreaders” and repeat violators of the company’s policies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that the White House is in regular communication with social media platforms, urging them to remove false narratives such as the notion that coronavirus vaccinations can cause infertility.

The White House has also pressed Facebook to remove the 12 people that one study found are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.

In her comments Friday, Psaki appeared to address concerns about the First Amendment or any heavy-handed government intervention into private business.

“We don’t take anything down. We don’t block anything. Facebook and any private-sector company makes decisions about what information should be on their platform,” she said. “Our point is that there is information that is leading to people not taking the vaccine, and people are dying as a result. And we have a responsibility, as a public health matter, to raise that issue.”

Although the administration has released recommendations that it wants social media companies to follow, it has not outlined any penalties or potential regulatory changes.

Facebook executives have said that they have removed more than 18 million pieces of coronavirus misinformation and shut down accounts that repeatedly break the platform’s rules. But when asked if those efforts were sufficient, Psaki said, “Clearly not.”

Biden himself did not weigh in until Friday afternoon. He stopped briefly to take a question from reporters as he was walking to board Marine One for a flight to spend the weekend at Camp David, the nearby presidential retreat.

Asked about his message to platforms like Facebook regarding misinformation, he said three sentences — two of them punctuated by “They’re killing people.”

That condemnation is likely to exacerbate the longtime tensions between him and social media companies, a lingering distrust that for many Democrats is rooted in Russian disinformation on Donald Trump’s behalf that took hold during the 2016 presidential campaign.

During Biden’s own 2020 run, he and his advisers took a combative posture throughout, expressing early and open criticism of Facebook and Twitter.

Last summer, Biden’s campaign sent an open letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg urging his company to do more to combat political disinformation. “It continues to allow Donald Trump to say anything — and to pay to ensure that his wild claims reach millions of voters,” the letter read.

The Biden campaign also took out ads to combat false claims that he supported the movement to defund police departments and that he was a socialist.

Days after the election, top Biden staffer Bill Russo used a number of tweets to ridicule Facebook, saying the company was “shredding the fabric of our democracy.”

Biden also criticized the company.

“I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know,” he said in an interview with the New York Times editorial board. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.”

He also said that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech companies from liability for messages posted by their users, “immediately should be revoked.”

“It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company,” he told the Times, adding that Zuckerberg and his company should be subject to civil liability. “It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.”

Social media companies respond that they are doing all they can to combat reckless and irresponsible speech, including policing and taking down messages and ousting repeat offenders from their platforms.

But the dissatisfaction spans the political spectrum, and the companies’ role in monitoring the falsehoods that roll across their platforms has been a sticking point between the two parties.

Many Democrats have criticized social media sites for allowing misinformation to spread rampantly and have called for greater measures to stop it, while some Republicans have accused the companies of “censoring” conservative viewpoints and have pushed them to take a more hands-off approach to speech.

Some conservative politicians and pundits have invoked the First Amendment in appealing to social media to allow more free speech. But the First Amendment generally constrains government actions, not those of private companies.

Some have also raised privacy concerns about pursuing individuals for what they post, but the White House played down those questions, saying it is talking only about publicly available information.

Psaki said the White House had not made any direct contact with the 12 individuals who are said to be responsible for spreading the majority of the misinformation about vaccines. The figures cited by the White House came from an analysis released in March by the Center for Countering Digital Hate called “The Disinformation Dozen: Why platforms must act on twelve leading online anti-vaxxers.”

As top officials at the White House and elsewhere pore over data, they are reckoning with the fact that millions of people are vehemently opposed to getting vaccinated even as the delta variant spreads rapidly. Public health experts fear that cases will skyrocket as people head back to offices and spend more time indoors in the cooler weather of fall.

Further complicating the White House’s effort is the likely need eventually for booster shots for the elderly and other vulnerable people. Pfizer executives met with top U.S. health officials this week to make their case for administering a third dose to some people six to 12 months after they received the company’s two-shot regimen.

The White House has continued to focus its vaccination efforts on the local level, seeking to elevate trusted community leaders to reach individuals who have concerns about the vaccines. But significant populations continue to refuse to get the shots, including younger Americans, communities of color and staunch conservatives.

One outside health expert who has advised the Biden administration criticized the framing of the White House’s July 4 goal that 70 percent of Americans get at least one shot of the vaccine.

“It sent the message that one shot is enough,” the person said, noting that one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine provides significantly less protection than the recommended two doses.

The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly about the White House effort, also said the administration was premature in celebrating “independence from covid” on the Fourth of July. One senior administration official acknowledged that the White House identified the Fourth of July as a significant marker before the administration truly understood the delta variant.

“By the time July 4 was coming around, they tempered the language considerably,” the official said. “It was not the summer of fun anymore.”