‘They’re killing people’: Biden condemns Facebook over spread of Covid disinformation

President’s message follows warning from surgeon general that social media companies pose imminent public health threat

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 16 July 2021 20:38
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US Surgeon General: Vaccine myths spread on social media are 'costing lives'
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President Joe Biden said social media companies like Facebook where disinformation related to the Covid-19 crisis and vaccinations has proliferated are “killing people” as the nation sees a rise in infections among unvaccinated Americans.

Asked for his message to platforms like Facebook as he left the White House on 16 July, the president said: “They’re killing people.”

“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that’s – they’re killing people,” he said.

Earlier on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly underscored the gravity of vaccine skepticism and hostility amid a concerning rise in infections, while platforms like Facebook have allowed prominent users and pages to promote baseless medical claims.

“We’re dealing with a life-or-death issue here and so everybody has a role to play in making sure there’s accurate information,” she said. “They’re a private sector company. They’re going to make decisions about additional steps they can take. It’s clear there are more that can be taken.”

She pointed to persistent false claims that vaccines are unsafe or may cause infertility as part of a “troubling but a persistent narrative that we and many have seen, and we want to know that the social media platforms are taking steps to address it”.

“That is inaccurate, false information,” she said.

The White House is “regularly making sure social media platforms are aware of the latest narratives dangerous to public healths that we and many other Americans are seeing across all of social and traditional media”, she said.

Once those claims spread among users, “it’s hard to put that back in a box”, she said.

Recent analysis using the social media tool CrowdTangle shows that within the last month, nine of the top 15 top-performing Facebook posts about vaccines have promoted false or alarmist claims, and were shared hundreds of thousands of times.

The vaccine-related post with the most engagement – with more than 130,000 shares and 4 million views – was a video published by right-wing personality Candace Owens.

Roughly 68 per cent of the nation’s adult population has received at least one dose of three approved vaccines , while roughly 59 per cent are fully inoculated from the virus, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Daily vaccinations have significantly dropped from the rates of more than 3 million per day as they became more widely available earlier this spring. One month ago, they averaged roughly 1 million per day. Now, that figure stands at fewer than 500,000.

The highly contagious delta variant accounts for more than half of all new infections in the US, with an average of 28,000 new daily cases, up from 11,000 daily cases less than a month ago, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, vaccine hesitancy among Republicans has grown into hostility, amplified not just on social media but by right-wing media that once cheered Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” investments to create the vaccines – as the former president continues to demand credit for them – but now rejects the Biden administration’s outreach attempts and vaccination goals.

At this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, prominent GOP officials and media figures spread baseless claims about the public health crisis, including suggesting that the rise in delta infections is a hoax, while crowds cheered declining vaccination rates.

“Don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci ouchie,” said US Rep Lauren Boebert, who lashed out at the hypothetical door-to-door efforts to help tell people how they can get vaccinated. “You leave us the hell alone.”

In Tennessee, health officials have ordered an end to all youth vaccine outreach – not only for Covid-19 but for flu, HPV and other vaccines – under pressure from Republican lawmakers, according to The Tennessean.

On Thursday, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an official warning about the spread of false information and appeared at the daily White House press briefing to identify social media platforms as a major hub for false claims about Covid-19 and vaccines.

“Almost every death we’re seeing now from Covid-19 could have been prevented,” he said. “Today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.”

The Independent has requested comment from Facebook.

In a statement shared with NBC News, the company said: “We will not be distracted by accusations which are not supported in facts.”

The company said more than 2 billion people have viewed “authoritative information about Covid-19 and vaccines” on the platform, and that more than 3.3 million Americans have used its vaccine finder tool to locate where and how to get vaccinated.

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

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