(Bloomberg) — Defeating Covid-19 in the U.S. is now mired in a partisan information war, a fight that President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are ill-equipped to win.
Biden’s struggle to control the coronavirus and vaccine misinformation online was evident in his broadside Friday that companies like Facebook Inc. were “killing people.” He begged social media platforms to change and pleaded with the American people not to believe everything they read.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google said Monday its YouTube video service will start labeling health videos with information on how authoritative the source is and Twitter Inc. says it’s working with public health authorities and will “continue to take enforcement action on content that violates our Covid-19 misleading information policy.”
But Facebook went on the counterattack — accusing the White House of “finger-pointing” for failing to meet its vaccination target — indicating that the company is already doing everything it’s willing to do.
Biden’s comments came after months of meetings with social media companies to address misinformation on their platforms, according to an administration official. Discussions with Facebook grew increasingly unproductive in recent months and the administration was unsatisfied with the company’s responses to requests for more details about its response to inaccuracies and unscientific speculation, the official said. Still, there wasn’t much the White House could do but complain.
Biden walked back his earlier comments slightly on Monday, saying online misinformation is the culprit, not the companies themselves. When asked whether he would hold social media companies accountable, he said he’s “trying to make people look at themselves, look in the mirror” and imagine those falsehoods going to people they care about and act accordingly.
Imran Ahmed, head of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said that Biden’s plea reflects his frustration with the spread of vaccine inaccuracies online — and his powerlessness to fix it.
“It’s not just a morally devastating line from the president, it’s also a sign of the weakness that government has when it comes to dealing with the platforms,” Ahmed said in a telephone interview. “We’re seeing the limitations of the tools that government has right now.”
The Biden administration fell short of its goal for at least 70% of eligible Americans to receive one shot by July 4. Now 72.3% of the adult population, or 186 million Americans, has received at least one dose, while at least 161 million people have completed the vaccination regime. The vaccine rollout, however, has stalled, and now the gap between the most and least vaccinated counties in the U.S. has widened, leaving many communities vulnerable to continued outbreaks.
A report from Ahmed’s organization, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting harmful content online, identified 12 users who generate 65% of the misleading posts about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines.
A big part of the problem is political. Republicans in Congress have excoriated social media companies for limiting the voices of some right-wing users who have violated company policies. GOP lawmakers like Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn warn that any collaboration between Facebook and a Democratic administration to police information online is akin to censorship by authoritarian regimes.
That report has also fueled anger from Democrats who are frustrated that platforms haven’t taken swifter action against those who drive the bulk of false content that’s prolonged the pandemic in parts of the U.S. where vaccination hesitancy is high.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that there’s “absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to monitor this better and take this crap off of their platforms.” Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, has repeatedly called for Facebook to be broken up, divesting of messenger service WhatsApp and photo-sharing platform Instagram, to force better company policies by giving consumers more choice.
Facebook countered Biden’s criticism in a July 17 blogpost from Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen, saying that vaccine acceptance among U.S. Facebook users has actually increased. The post described the company’s efforts to present “authoritative information” about Covid-19, help connect people to vaccines, remove “18 million instances of Covid-19 misinformation” and participate in a data collection effort with Carnegie Mellon University.
Robin Mejia, a Carnegie Mellon statistician who works on the project with Facebook, said the coronavirus survey routinely gets 40,000 responses a day — a valuable trove of information that paints a picture of vaccination acceptance and the virus’s spread in real time. Mejia described the project in an interview as an example of the ability of social media to provide a useful tool for policymakers.
There are several bills languishing in Congress that would change legal protections for content that’s posted and shared on social media platforms, but the proposals lack momentum amid a legislative agenda focused on infrastructure and yearly spending bills. Even if measures to change the legal liability shield known as Section 230 were to pass, it’s not clear that they would address the misinformation problem.
Klobuchar, along with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, has introduced a measure to reform Section 230, although the proposal focuses more on content that enables cyber-stalking and harassment, rather than misinformation. Other Section 230 bills include a proposal from Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, to hold platforms accountable for the way they share and spread content. Another from Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, would require social media companies to create consumer protection programs and allow individuals to sue if the companies violate those policies or terms of service.
There are limits to what the government, including Congress, can do about online content. Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said Covid-19 misinformation falls into the “lawful but awful” category of speech that’s protected by the first amendment.
“Vaccine misinformation is often constitutionally protected material,” Goldman said. “People get scientific facts wrong all the time.”
Even if Congress pares back Section 230, making companies legally responsible for more user content, it would be hard for claimants to prove the social media firms are liable for the consequences of the vaccine inaccuracies.
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said Congress could pass a law banning the spread of Covid-19 misinformation. While the First Amendment protects many kinds of speech, a law could override technology companies’ Section 230 defense, clearing the way for more legal cases over Covid-19 misinformation on social media. Such a law could survive a First Amendment challenge, she said.
“If we had someone wanting to sell their baked goods and they’re claiming that there’s no peanuts, when in fact it has peanuts — we don’t let them do that either,” Franks said. “You can’t lie in such a way that is going to cause measurable harm to other people.”
Nevertheless, complaints about what conservatives describe as censorship dominated the GOP response to Biden’s Friday comments.
Blackburn sent a letter to Biden Monday saying his administration’s efforts to “work with big tech companies to censor Americans’ free speech are shocking.” Other Republicans had a similar reaction, including Washington State Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who warned against the Biden administration’s “abuse of power.”
Republican opposition presents a political risk for companies like Facebook, who faced frequent criticism from former President Donald Trump and his followers for taking action against right-wing users — including Trump himself — who violate company policies. Democrats currently hold the House and Senate by very thin margins, and Republicans are well-positioned to take the House majority in next year’s midterm elections.
The top tech platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, have faced repeated questions from lawmakers and the chief executive officers of all three were called to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on misinformation in March. Frank Pallone, the chairman of that committee, and several Democratic senators have written to Facebook requesting more detail about bad vaccine information.
So far, the political frustration with Facebook hasn’t had financial consequences for the company, which became the fastest firm to reach a $1 trillion market value, just 17 years after its founding and nine years after it went public.
“Frankly social media companies benefit from traffic to their websites, regardless of what drives it,” Ahmed said. “In a broken attention market in which there are no consequences for monitoring malignant misinformation, who’s going to stop them?”