Biden’s Facebook Attack Followed Months of Frustration Inside White House

Rhetoric intensifies as both sides trade accusations of distortions

President Biden and Facebook have long had chilly relations, though the tensions have elevated as the president looks to control the spread of Covid-19.PHOTO: SUSAN WALSH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Biden’s attack on Facebook Inc. on Friday followed months of mounting private frustration inside his administration over the social-media giant’s handling of vaccine misinformation, according to U.S. officials, bringing into public view tensions that could complicate efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.

The tough words between the White House and Silicon Valley escalated over the weekend, as Facebook issued a blunt statement accusing the Biden administration of distorting the facts. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows in Washington, countered that social-media companies weren’t doing enough to clamp down on false statements about Covid-19 vaccines.

“The reality is that misinformation is still spreading like wildfire in our country, aided and abetted by technology platforms,” Dr. Murthy said on Fox News Sunday. He granted that companies like Facebook had taken steps to address false vaccine information, but he added, “It is not enough.”

Facebook has rejected the Biden administration’s criticisms. On Saturday, the company posted an item on its blog saying it wasn’t responsible for Mr. Biden’s failure to achieve his publicly stated goal of 70% of American adults receiving at least one dose of the vaccine by July 4 and that 85% of its users in the U.S. have been or want to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Facebook also said it was doing its part to help get more Americans vaccinated, such as by operating pop-up vaccine clinics in low-income and underserved communities in California and other states.

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Still, the conflict has further complicated Facebook’s profile in Washington—with both the left and right—over everything from misinformation to its economic and political clout. While the company is under attack from the White House for failing to do more to monitor posts, some Republicans accused it of stifling free speech. The Biden administration is “going to monopolists and saying, ‘You are our tool to censor views we disagree with,’ ” Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) said on Fox News on Sunday.

The weekend exchanges followed a week in which senior Biden administration officials unleashed on Facebook and other social-media companies.

The surgeon general issued an advisory Thursday warning against health misinformation, alleging that social-media companies “have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment, with little accountability to their users.”

On Friday, Mr. Biden accused social-media companies such as Facebook of killing people by not doing more to remove false statements about the vaccine. “They’re killing people,” he said in response to a question about companies like Facebook. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

“The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period,” Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in response to Mr. Biden’s remarks.

The false narratives that Covid-19 vaccines result in widespread death and that the U.S. government is mandating vaccines more than doubled across the major social-media platforms within the past three months, according to Zignal Labs Inc. Others include false claims that vaccines are really microchips and that vaccines change people’s DNA, the media-analytics firm said.

Mr. Biden and Facebook have long had frosty relations, although the current situation appears to have elevated tensions as the president looks to control the spread of the coronavirus. Facebook’s swift rebuttal and suggestion that the administration is “finger pointing” show the company’s plans to defend itself publicly.

“Facebook’s immediate defensiveness on health misinformation shows that they are feeling pressure internally to clarify their position,” said Joan Donovan, director of research at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The administration’s confrontational approach marked a shift for Mr. Biden and his team, which began meeting with social-media companies during the presidential transition in a bid to strengthen protections against misinformation, U.S. officials said. They met with executives including those for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Pinterest.

But in recent months, the behind-the-scenes discussions with Facebook grew increasingly unproductive, according to the officials, who said they were unsatisfied with the company’s responses to their requests for more information about how it was responding to the influx in misinformation.

Convinced that private negotiations had little hope of success, senior Biden administration officials decided to ratchet up public pressure on Facebook this week amid growing concern in the White House with the slowing pace of vaccinations and the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Administration officials have called on social-media companies to provide researchers with more data about the type and scope of the misinformation on their platforms and to make changes to their algorithms to limit the spread of false claims. They also have pressed the companies to apply their rules evenly across multiple platforms.

Officials initially had high hopes for the conversations with social-media companies over the recent months, thinking Mr. Biden’s team and Facebook could set aside their differences to help tackle the pandemic.

During meetings with Facebook, Biden administration officials pressed the company to explain how it was measuring success in responding to misinformation, where misinformation was coming from and what impact misinformation was having on users, a senior administration official said. The answers in reply were unsatisfactory, in the view of senior officials. Some in the administration came to believe the company’s approach had fundamental flaws and that its standards weren’t rigorous enough, the official said.

The official said the administration is less concerned about individual false or misleading posts than it is about the amplification and funneling of users to those posts.

Though the administration doesn’t regularly flag specific content to Facebook, according to aides, officials occasionally raised examples they said seemed to violate the spirit of the company’s anti-misinformation efforts. One example cited by an administration official: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. , who has questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines, has been banned from Instagram, but not Facebook. Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion.

Mr. Kennedy said Sunday that any conversation between the administration and Facebook about his social media posts would amount to unconstitutional government censorship.

“Misinformation. The term has nothing to do with falsehood. It’s just any statement that departs from official statements and proclamations,” he said, adding: “There is no pandemic exception to the Bill of Rights.”

Facebook has said that it doesn’t automatically disable accounts across its apps for repeatedly violating its community standards, because the accounts may post about different matters on its services. But in May 2019 the company banned several personalities whose views it deemed too inflammatory to be shared on all of its services, including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, far-right talk-show host Alex Jones and conservative Jewish activist Laura Loomer. Facebook said it only permanently bans repeat offenders across its platforms.

Facebook said it already had taken action on all eight of the surgeon general’s recommendations on what tech companies can do to help.

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