Trying to fight Covid misinformation, White House risks falling into same feedback loop


Biden and others offered stern warnings about the deadly impact of anti-vaccine messages spreading through Facebook and other sites. — Getty Images/TNS

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration’s campaign against Covid-19 misinformation risks falling prey to the same phenomenon it seeks to combat.

As the US struggles with low vaccination rates in some states, the White House stepped up pressure on social media companies last week to remove content and users promoting falsehoods about the Covid-19 vaccine.

The White House unveiled a set of new recommendations to social media companies to step up enforcement of content standards, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a formal advisory about the health risks of misinformation, and US President Joe Biden and others offered stern warnings about the deadly impact of anti-vaccine messages spreading through Facebook and other sites.

“That misinformation is going to kill people. Not a joke. Not a joke,” Biden said Wednesday evening during a CNN town hall in Ohio.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that 65% of anti-vaccine content originates with just 12 users and that all of these individuals remained active on Facebook despite being banned from other platforms, including ones owned by Facebook.

That statistic comes from a March report by the Washington-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit which analysed a sample of anti-vaccine content posted on Facebook and Twitter from February 2020 through March 16.

Psaki’s comment set off a new round of misinformation in a microcosm of how quickly inaccuracies can spread.

Fox News’ Peter Doocy asked Psaki how long the White House had “been spying on people’s Facebook profiles”, a characterisation quickly rejected by Psaki as “a loaded and inaccurate question”.

Imran Ahmed, the center’s CEO, noted that months before the White House used his organisation’s statistic, the report was cited during a March congressional hearing when lawmakers confronted the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google about the proliferation of misinformation on their platform about COVID-19 and the election.

“It is bizarre to claim that collecting the posts published by people with millions of followers who presumably seek to have influence is spying. I might be British but I’m not James Bond,” Ahmed said.

He said the center has identified a pattern across extremist movements, including the anti-vaccine movement, that many falsehoods can be traced back to super-influencers.

In the case of vaccines, the group identified 12 social media users who are responsible for the bulk of the misinformation, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.

“A small number of people are doing a disproportionate amount of harm,” Ahmed said.

Doocy’s characterisation of that tracking as “spying” was spread on social media by right-wing sites such as Legal Insurrection, which treated Psaki’s pushback as proof of the premise and attacked major media outlets as complicit for debunking it.

The incident highlights how efforts by the White House and its allies to wage a fight against misinformation can prompt a new round of questionable assertions that require more fact checks.

The White House campaign against misinformation has also played into long-standing fears from conservatives about social media companies’ content moderation. It prompted a swift backlash from Republican lawmakers.

“They are asking individuals and groups to be censored,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who recently published a book that warns against the power of the tech industry.

“And they are trying to use the government’s power to get private companies to do it,” Hawley said. “It’s a remarkable attempt to leverage the influence of power of the federal government and the White House to try to get these companies to do their bidding.”

Hawley’s home state is the center of one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the nation, and he said he would welcome federal agencies holding mass vaccination events in Missouri. But removing anti-vaccine voices from social media wouldn’t persuade more people to get the shot, he said.

Biden said last week that Facebook is “killing people” by allowing misinformation to spread. He walked back that dramatic phrasing days later, but he continued to press for the company and its competitors to step up efforts to curb the spread of falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines.

“It’s the strongest remedy we have right now,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a longtime critic of social media companies. Blumenthal said that unless the law shielding those companies from liability for user-generated content is changed, the president’s bully pulpit remains the best tool for spurring the companies to act.

“The robust remedy is public pressure. And there’s no censorship. What the president is doing is calling attention to their public responsibility. I’ve been doing it, but I don’t have quite the megaphone that he does,” Blumenthal said.

Biden promised Wednesday to use “every avenue” to get the facts out to fight misinformation. “There’s nothing political about this. There’s no blue or red,” he said.

But Republicans have bristled at what they see as an effort by the White House to control speech.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., argued that the White House campaign will spur more distrust in the vaccine.

“I see these people in my town halls every week. They hate being told what to do and what not to do,” said Marshall, an OB-GYN who had a post removed by Facebook last year after it was flagged as misinformation.

The same week that the White House stepped up its pressure on social media companies, the Democratic National Committee announced it will flag and fact check misinformation sent as mass texts through Short Message Service (SMS) carriers.

Conservative websites and lawmakers inaccurately framed it as an attempt by the Biden administration to read people’s personal texts.

Hawley claimed in a fundraising email that Biden “wants to bring Beijing-style surveillance to the United States – reading people’s text messages”.

The DNC was forced to issue a statement clarifying that it had “no ability to access or read people’s private text messages and we are not working with any government agency (including the White House) to try to see personal text messages”.

The way in which Biden’s opponents have pounced on the issue demonstrates the challenge the administration faces in trying to deter the spread of falsehoods on online platforms.

Dr Bruce Gellin, the chief of global public health strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation, said the efforts to misrepresent anti-misinformation initiatives only highlight the need to invest resources in the issue.

“If people tell you the laws of gravity have disappeared, you need to say, well, not quite, we’re still touching the ground,” said Gellin, whose organisation announced last week that it was steering US$13.5mil (RM57.05mil) into combating Covid-19 misinformation in the United States and abroad.

Tech policy experts, however, are more sceptical that the White House push will yield results.

“My personal view is it’s shouting into the wind,” said Corbin Barthold, Internet policy counsel at TechFreedom, a Washington-based think tank that opposes regulation of the industry.

While Barthold called the statements from GOP lawmakers hyperbolic, he similarly dismissed the White House efforts as political posturing.

“The information ecosystem we live in is not going to be controlled from the top like that. It evolves so much faster than people in Washington can understand or predict,” Barthold said. – McClatchy Washington Bureau/Tribune News Service

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