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Inside the White House-Facebook rift over vaccine misinformation

Many Americans who refused to get vaccinated had cited false stories they read on Facebook, including theories that the shots could lead to infertility, stillborn babies and autism

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Cecilia Kang
Published: Aug 11, 2021

Inside the White House-Facebook rift over vaccine misinformationA coronavirus vaccination site in Upper Marlboro, Md., March 25, 2021. That month, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, called Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, to discuss health misinformation. Image: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — In March, Andy Slavitt, then a top pandemic adviser for President Joe Biden, called Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, and delivered an ominous warning.

For many weeks, Slavitt and other White House officials had been meeting with Facebook to urge the company to stop the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. Many Americans who refused to get vaccinated had cited false stories they read on Facebook, including theories that the shots could lead to infertility, stillborn babies and autism. Slavitt and other officials felt that executives were deflecting blame and resisting requests for information. 

“In eight weeks’ time,” Slavitt told Clegg, “Facebook will be the No. 1 story of the pandemic.” 

Slavitt’s prediction was not far off. Roughly three months later, with cases from the delta variant surging, Biden said Facebook was “killing people” — a comment that put the social network in the center of the public discussion about the virus. 

Biden’s comment, which he later walked back slightly, was the culmination of increasingly combative meetings with the company about the spread of misinformation. Interviews with administration officials, Facebook employees and other people with knowledge of the internal discussions revealed new details about who took part in the talks and the issues that fed the frustrations between the White House and the Silicon Valley titan. 

The meetings have involved the top ranks on both sides, according to the people, including those close to Facebook and those with ties to the administration, who would only speak anonymously because the conversations were private. 

In March, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, called Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, and discussed health misinformation. The White House grew so frustrated by Facebook’s answers in the internal meetings that at one point it demanded to hear from the data scientists at the company instead of lobbyists. And the nation’s top doctor presented the social media representatives with anecdotes from doctors and nurses who had interacted with COVID-19 patients who believed incorrect information. 

Talks between the White House and Facebook continue. But the rift has complicated an already tumultuous relationship just as Biden faces a setback on fighting the coronavirus. The White House missed its goal of having 70% of American adults with at least one vaccination shot by July 4, and the highly contagious delta variant has fueled a rise in cases since then. The United States averaged more than 110,000 new daily cases in the past week, up from about 13,000 a month ago. In response, the administration has reversed some public health advice, leaving many Americans perplexed over requirements like wearing masks. 

The vast majority of the new cases are among unvaccinated people. On Thursday, the White House urged pediatricians to incorporate vaccination into back-to-school sports physicals and encouraged schools to host their own vaccination clinics. But close collaboration with Facebook, by far the largest social network in the country, could be crucial to overcoming the widespread vaccine hesitancy and ultimately the pandemic. 

“We’ve engaged with Facebook since the transition on this issue,” said Mike Gwin, a White House spokesperson, “and we’ve made clear to them when they haven’t lived up to our, or their own, standards and have actively elevated content on their platforms that misleads the American people.” 

Facebook has pushed back strongly against the White House’s criticism, accusing the administration in public of scapegoating the company for the administration’s failure to reach its vaccination goals. Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the White House hadn’t given the company enough credit for promoting the vaccine. He said the social network had been working with the White House for “many months” to get people vaccinated, introducing features like prominent links to vaccine clinics. 

“We remove COVID-related content that breaks our rules and continue to link to authoritative health information on all COVID-related posts,” Stone said. 

Gwin said the administration needed the help of not just Facebook but also other tech platforms, elected leaders and media outlets to spread accurate information about the vaccine. But aggressively condemning prominent TV personalities on certain outlets, such as Fox News, could risk alienating some viewers and making them less likely to get vaccinated, administration officials say. 

The White House believes that Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, emerged as particularly problematic, some people close to the administration said. Human rights advocates and election officials have had similar complaints about the company’s handling of misinformation in recent years, saying executives point to steps taken to share factual information but avoid responsibility for the falsehoods spread widely on its services. 

Biden’s frustrations with Facebook began before the pandemic. His team sparred with the company during his presidential campaign over its decision not to fact-check political ads, especially after groups supporting Donald Trump ran ads with false claims about Biden’s interactions with Ukrainian officials. At one point during the campaign, Biden described the company’s CEO as a “real problem,” and added that “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan.” 

After the election, Biden’s transition team set up meetings with numerous organizations about COVID-19 misinformation, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, as well as Fox News and CNN. 

The meetings, which began in December, were attended by Dr. Vivek Murthy, who would later be named the surgeon general; D.J. Patil, the chief technology officer for Biden’s transition team; and Rob Flaherty, Biden’s director of digital strategy. They said they wanted to ensure that people hesitant about getting the vaccine received accurate information about the shots. 

The officials asked the tech companies to prevent false statements about the virus from circulating. The officials also asked the companies how many “fence sitters,” people hesitant about getting vaccinated, were exposed to misinformation on their sites. 

Over the next weeks, many of the social media companies struggled to eradicate health misinformation. But some shared information the White House sought. 

Facebook provided information from a data-tracking tool it owns, CrowdTangle, which is used by academics and journalists. But Facebook officials, including Brian Rice, the company’s top Democratic lobbyist to the White House, and Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health, skirted some requests for more information, some people close to the administration said. 

When Patil asked for data on how often misinformation was viewed and spread, the company said it couldn’t provide that kind of data. Facebook told White House officials that it grappled with content that wasn’t explicitly false, such as posts that cast doubt about vaccines but don’t clearly violate the social network’s rules on health misinformation. Facebook allows people to express their experiences with vaccines, such as pain or side effects after receiving a shot, as long as they don’t explicitly endorse falsehoods. 

“Seriously?” Patil texted the Biden team during the video call, according to someone familiar with the correspondence. “We have to get past the talking points. People are literally dying.” 

Facebook responded to some requests for information by talking about vaccine promotion strategies, said administration officials and people familiar with the meetings. The company noted that it was conducting surveys on how many Facebook users in the United States got vaccinated, and that the company was using its software to amplify pro-vaccine messages and to direct people to vaccination clinics. 

To the government officials, Facebook was purposely making things difficult. No one understood the data about the social network better than Facebook, the officials said, and they wanted the company to help guide them toward the right questions. 

Toward the end of the transition, Patil asked to meet with more members of Facebook’s data science team, not lobbyists without technical backgrounds, to drill into details about where misinformation originates on the site and how prevalent it becomes through shares. Facebook said Jin, an engineer who leads the company’s health efforts, had attended many of the meetings. 

In one meeting this spring, Murthy presented anecdotes from nurses and doctors. The health workers said COVID-19 patients had been afraid to take the vaccine because of false information they read on Facebook. Last month, Murthy took his criticisms public, stating in his first formal advisory to the country that misinformation was “an urgent threat to public health.” 

The next day, Biden made his “killing people” comment, setting off a rancorous back-and-forth. Slavitt, then out of the administration, tried to play the role of mediator, encouraging Facebook to temper the rhetoric and advising the White House to be explicit about solutions for how the platform could combat misinformation. 

The administration and Facebook did restart talks, and both sides agreed on the need to tone down their language. At one recent meeting, the Biden team, including Murthy and Patil, emphasized that vaccination efforts had stalled, medical officials were at risk and deaths could rise without more enforcement from the company, people familiar with the matter said. 

At the end of the meeting, the two sides thanked each other for the candor and agreed to continue meeting. They left without any concrete solutions.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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