President Joe Biden didn’t heed pleas from activists and congressional Democrats last year that he put a dedicated czar or task force in charge of countering falsehoods about Covid vaccines — despite warnings that conspiracy theories about public health were creating “tragic consequences.”
Now the fight about vaccination misinformation has become central to his administration’s struggles to inoculate the vast majority of Americans, as vaccination rates plateau, the highly contagious Delta variant spreads and the specter of new lockdowns or mask mandates threatens the nation’s return to normal life.
The current focus of the messaging battle is the White House’s denunciations of Facebook, which Biden and his aides have accused of propagating falsehoods that help solidify some people’s resistance to being vaccinated.
But more than six months ago, the administration disregarded calls for appointing either one person or a federal commission to help lead the fight against misinformation. And some who offered that advice at the time say the vaccination push may have made more progress had Biden and his team heeded it.
“I wish they had,” said Blair Levin, a former Obama official and top Federal Communications Commission staffer who late last year called on the incoming administration to launch a Covid misinformation commission. But getting the vaccine out had to take precedence, he added.
In a separate letter in mid-December, five leading Democrats from the House and Senate urged Biden to name a misinformation expert to his coronavirus task force, citing statistics showing that four in 10 Americans opposed being vaccinated against Covid-19. “The COVID-19 infodemic is about to dangerously intersect with a misinformation-laden anti-vaccine movement that has led to tragic consequences in our country,” they wrote.
The administration — which spent its initial months consumed with the enormous task of making vaccines available — says it has acted aggressively to denounce the conspiracy theories and promote accurate messages about Covid prevention. But it has dispersed the anti-misinformation tasks among many different staffers. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, White House digital strategist Rob Flaherty and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, have all been in touch with Facebook about combating misinformation.
In an interview, a senior administration official working on those efforts argued that “carving out Covid misinformation as a standalone bucket of work” would be less productive than attacking it from multiple angles.
Others with expertise in misinformation disagree, saying the government needs a concentrated assault on disinformation — about the pandemic and other crises.
“This includes appointing a senior White House official who would be exclusively dedicated to mobilizing a whole-of-government response to this crisis, in close cooperation with Congress, civil society, and federal agencies,” wrote Rebecca Lenn, a senior adviser for the online activist group Avaaz, in an email to POLITICO. In late December, Avaaz and Accountable Tech led a coalition of 50 nonprofits and consumer advocacy groups in urging Biden to place a disinformation specialist on his pandemic team.
“From the politicization of masks to viral conspiracy theories about the forthcoming vaccines, our toxic information infrastructure is undermining the pandemic response and every American is paying the price,” the groups wrote at the time.
A ‘broken information ecosystem’
Now, that fight is flaring up at a time when plans to end the pandemic face mounting hurdles — hampered by anti-vaccine rhetoric on networks like Fox News and hardening opposition to Covid inoculations among supporters of former President Donald Trump, even though Trump has recommended that Americans get vaccinated.
“We have to address the misinformation question, because we are now at a point where misinformation is motivating people not to take action,” said Joan Donovan, a Harvard disinformation expert whom House and Senate Democrats had recommended in December to lead anti-falsehood efforts for Biden.
And White House attacks on Facebook aside, the problem is bigger than social media alone, and tech companies should not be the only ones addressing it, said Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner, who signed the December letter from House and Senate Democrats.
“While much of the blame rests with the dominant social media platforms whose product designs and sustained inaction have — again and again — catapulted harmful misinformation into the mainstream, the solutions to our deeply broken information ecosystem extend beyond reforming these platforms,” Warner (D-Va.) said by email.
While a more aggressive or pinpointed attack may have had only a limited impact on vaccine hesitancy, Levin said greater focus on the issue would have been a move in the right direction. “We’d still have the same issues, but I think we would be improving things,” he said.
“We have a crisis in this country today that we didn’t have six months ago,” Levin said. “Six months ago, we had the crisis of just getting the vaccine out. … Having said that, we’re now in a situation where we’re not getting to the herd immunity” because of an information ecosystem rife with false information about vaccines.
Polls show that vaccine hesitancy among Americans was more common in January, when Biden took office, and has dropped over time, as health experts expected. But the U.S. has still failed to hit Biden’s goal for vaccine uptake.
Among other steps, the administration has sought answers from Facebook and other social networks about how far the misinformation on their platforms has spread, the senior administration official said.
The administration has also aggressively encouraged Americans to get Covid shots, including spending millions of dollars on TV and digital ads, an effort that a White House official said included pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s pro-vaccine visit to the White House last week. Biden and Rodrigo’s posts about the visit performed well on Facebook and Instagram.
“At the end of the day I think we recognize that the best defense to misinformation is a really good offense,” said the senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s interactions with Facebook candidly.
The White House also said it has raised concerns with Facebook about specific misleading posts, though only a handful of times.
“We want to be careful about not seeming like we’re the content police,” the senior administration official said. “That’s not our role.”
Section 230 on the table
In the past week, however, social media companies have taken the main brunt of the administration’s ire regarding vaccine hesitancy — especially Facebook, which the White House has accused of failing to take down about a dozen accounts that outside researchers have labeled super-spreaders of false information about vaccines.
Biden even accused Facebook last week of “killing people” by failing to squelch bogus claims about the virus, although he softened that rhetoric on Monday.
The White House is also “reviewing” whether it should push for changes to Section 230, a contested 1996 law that shields online platforms from liability for content posted by users, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told MSNBC on Tuesday. Biden has yet to sketch out a concrete proposal on the statute, which both he and Trump had called for revoking during last year’s presidential campaign.
Before vaccines were even available, experts warned that addressing misinformation during the lengthy rollout of the shots would be even harder than battling falsehoods about the presidential election — and they worried about social media sites’ ability to sustain their policies against bogus claims over many months.
Soon after the November election, top lawmakers also urged the still-forming Biden-Harris team to staff up with mis- and disinformation experts as a crucial part of their Covid strategy.
Leaders across both chambers of Congress asked Biden to tap a disinformation expert — Harvard’s Donovan — for his Covid-19 Task Force, while nine House Democrats on the Congressional Task Force on Digital Citizenship pressed him to assemble a multi-agency body to create a federal strategy for countering mis- and disinformation.
‘Rosy pictures’ from Facebook
Facebook’s new strife with the Biden White House is spoiling what had appeared to be a reprieve for the company in its battles with Washington.
After the social media giant trudged through years of a volatile relationship with Trump, an election plagued by disinformation and a global controversy surrounding its temporary ban of the former president, relations with the new White House started out cordially enough. Biden filled his ranks with Facebook alums and his administration began working with the tech giant to educate Americans about Covid-19 and raise awareness about the vaccines. The platform’s Trump ban also muted Biden’s loudest critic just as the new president took office.
But those relations have abruptly taken a turn, souring fast as the country slips backward on recovery. In the days since Biden accused Facebook of “killing people” with Covid misinformation, the company has blasted the president for “finger pointing,” contending that Facebook is not the reason Biden failed to meet his goal of getting 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4.
Facebook’s vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, said that “facts — not allegations” should inform the administration’s work to end the pandemic. “The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the U.S. has increased,” he wrote in a blog post. “These and other facts tell a very different story to the one promoted by the Administration in recent days.”
Rosen added that vaccine hesitancy has dropped by 50 percent among U.S. Facebook users and 85 percent of them have gotten or want the Covid vaccine. Meanwhile, the U.K. and Canada — where the company has taken a similar approach to Covid and vaccine content — have outpaced the U.S. on vaccinations for those eligible. “This all suggests there’s more than Facebook to the outcome in the U.S.,” he said.
Facebook, though, has faced criticism about the transparency of the statistics it offers about content on its platforms, including complaints that it fails to divulge details on how widely falsehoods are spreading among users.
Facebook, for instance, has said that it has removed more than 18 million pieces of Covid disinformation. But it hasn’t provided data on how many people those posts reached before being removed.
“That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking for, and what we get are rosy pictures without a real honest conversation about what the dark side of this is,” the official said.
‘Can’t just ignore a problem this big’
California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, said in response to the flare-up that “a company can simultaneously be helping people get vaccinated [and] spreading misinformation.” She was among the House Democrats who had urged Biden to launch the cross-agency “digital democracy task force” that never came to fruition.
“Like my colleagues and I wrote in December, we need a whole-of-government approach to build citizen resilience to disinformation and misinformation,” she said in an email. “Unfortunately, there was no such effort under the Trump Administration, and our former President’s seeming disdain of facts and the truth helped get us into the current dangerous situation.”
Bedingfield, the White House communications director, told MSNBC on Tuesday that the administration’s strategy includes “continu[ing] to provide good, accurate information, particularly about the vaccine, to make sure people get this shot.”
Murthy’s recent advisory on health misinformation also made recommendations for “what governments can do,” but they were not substantially different from the steps that policymakers and advocates proposed more than half a year ago.
Asked at a Monday briefing whether the administration is considering any regulatory or legal action to address disinformation on social media, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied: “That’s up to Congress to determine how they want to proceed.”
Donovan, the Harvard disinformation expert, said the standard advice for addressing misinformation or conspiracies is often, at least at first, being “strategically silent” — declining to respond so as to avoid calling further attention to the untrue content.
“I think the Biden administration has tried to deal with the misinformation problem in a way that wouldn’t get us to where we are now,” she said. “But the surgeon general can’t just ignore a problem this big.”
And asked whether hiring a misinformation expert could be beneficial as the administration stares down the next phase of the pandemic, Donovan hesitated.
"Not to be too candid, but that person would probably get murdered,” she said, adding that as a researcher, she gets death threats every day. “It’s no small ask to get in that line of fire.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.