The White House said on Friday it would continue to tackle COVID-19 misinformation online amid growing criticism that the Biden administration is turning itself into the ultimate arbiter of what is and what is not true.
Officials last week admitted flagging problem posts to Facebook and Democrats are pushing a bill that would put the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of labeling online misinformation.
‘What we’re going to continue to do is make the vaccine available, we’re going to continue to work in partnership to fight misinformation and we’re going to continue to advocate and work in partnership with local officials and entrusted voices to get the word out,’ said President Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki in response to a question about the role of federal government in tackling the pandemic.
Experts in online manipulation say the strategy is wrongheaded and the impact of misinformation is exaggerated.
Three times factcheckers called the president out for making misleading statements, most notably in saying: ‘You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations,’ even as his own White House deals with ‘breakthrough’ cases of infection among staff.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday said the Biden administration would continue fighting COVID-19 misinformation despite the president’s recent gaffes illustrating the pitfalls
Factcheckers dinged President Biden for saying at Wednesday’s televised town hall: ‘You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations,’ even as his own administration deals with ‘breakthrough’ cases of infection
The missteps triggered a fresh chorus from opponents saying the White House was ill-equipped to take on the role of factchecker-in-chief when even the president stumbled over the truth about the virus.
Republican strategist John Feehery said Biden’s gaffes made him a constant source of misinformation.
‘Trump wasn’t that much better but at least everyone knew that Trump was Trump,’ he said.
‘No one assumed that Trump was going to be accurate. The problem with Biden and the Biden administration is they have put themselves as the top, most credible source and that’s simply not true.’
The question cuts across political divides into philosophy and questions about the nature of objective truth. When our understanding of coronavirus and the pandemic is moving so fast, who gets to decide what is true, what is an exaggeration and what is misinformation?
The discussion comes amid a slew of initiatives to rein in the power of social media companies and hold them accountable for content posted on their sites.
The White House is reviewing Section 230 – a 1990s era regulations that protects tech companies from being held liable for their content, in the way that newspaper and magazine publishers are.
Democratic senators this week introduced legislation that would require internet platforms such as Facebook and Alphabet’s Google to take down health and vaccine-related misinformation during public health emergencies or be held liable for its impacts.
It would set up the Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidelines on what is and what is not misinformation.
Facebook says it is wrong for the White House to single out a handful of social media companies for blame over vaccine hesitancy among the American population
Protesters holding placards gather at Indiana University’s Sample Gates during a demonstration against mandatory vaccinations at this June demonstration
Last week the White House admitted it had been flagging dangerous misinformation to Facebook – such as claims that vaccines could cause infertility – for removal.
Republicans accused Biden of acting like a ‘Cuban dictator’ in the way it was pressuring private companies to censor speech.
‘What the Biden White House is doing—namely, ordering big tech companies to ban Americans that do not regurgitate government approved messaging—is what authoritarian regimes do,’ said Sen. Marsha Blackburn in a letter sent to the White House.
‘The American people deserve to know the extent of the White House’s coordination with big tech. President Biden should waive executive privilege and release the emails.’
Free speech advocates raised bipartisan concerns.
‘No matter which party is in power, the government cannot be trusted to label “truth” or “fiction” any more than Facebook or Twitter can,’ said the American Civil Liberties Union, reminding viewers of how at the start of the pandemic President Trump claimed that COVID-19 would just disappear.
Conservatives point to series of U-turns made by Biden or administration officials over COVID-19 to show the problems.
As the evidence changed, public health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci changed from urging people not to wear masks – to keep supplies available for medical workers – to urging people to adopt face coverings.
And Facebook once labeled claims that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as ‘misinformation,’ only for Biden in May to ask his intelligence agencies to look again at whether the lab leak hypothesis might actually be true.
Last week Biden accused Facebook and other social media companies of ‘killing people,’ only to quickly row back and say it was posters of misinformation that were responsible for deaths.
However, people who have studied social media suggest governments tend to overestimate the reach of misinformation.
Free speech advocates worry about a future where government defines what is ‘true’ or ‘false’
FACT CHECK REVEALS BIDEN FALSELY CLAIMED VACCINE WOULD PREVENT COVID AND HIS ADMINISTRATION HOLDS SIX-MONTH JOBS RECORD
President Joe Biden offered an absolute guarantee Wednesday that people who get their COVID-19 vaccines are completely protected from infection, sickness and death from the coronavirus. The reality is not that cut and dried.
The vaccines are extremely effective but ‘breakthrough’ infections do occur and the delta variant driving cases among the unvaccinated in the U.S. is not fully understood.
Also Biden inflated the impact of his policies on U.S. jobs created in his first half-year in office, misleadingly stating his administration had done more than any other president. He neglects to mention he had population growth on his side in his comparison.
A look at his remarks in a CNN town hall:
BIDEN: ‘If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized, you’re not going to be in the IC unit, and you’re not going to die.’
THE FACTS: His remark accurately captures the strong protection the COVID-19 vaccines provide as cases spike among people who have resisted the shots. But it overlooks the rare exceptions.
As of July 12, the government had tallied 5,492 vaccinated people who tested positive for coronavirus and were hospitalized or died. That’s out of more than 159 million fully vaccinated Americans. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said ‘99.5 per cent of all deaths from COVID-19 are in the unvaccinated.’
BIDEN: ‘You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.’
THE FACTS: Again, he painted with too broad a brush as he described in stark terms the disparity between those who got their shots and those who haven’t. The disparity is real, but a small number of breakthrough infections happen and health officials say they are not a cause for alarm.
No vaccines are perfect, and the government is keeping a close eye on whether new coronavirus mutants start to outsmart the COVID-19 shots. But for now, federal health officials say even when breakthrough infections occur, they tend to be mild – the vaccines so far remain strongly protective against serious illness.
BIDEN, when asked after the town hall about vaccinated people who get infected: ‘It may be possible, I know of none where they’re hospitalized, in ICU and or have passed away so at a minimum I can say even if they did contract it, which I’m sorry they did, i’s such a tiny percentage and it’s not life threatening.’
THE FACTS: Once again, too far. That is evident from the CDC’s finding that 5,492 vaccinated people who tested positive for coronavirus were hospitalized or died as of July 12. That’s not ‘none.’ But he is correct that it is a small percentage of the more than 159 million fully vaccinated Americans.
BIDEN: ‘Now, by the way, remember when I first got elected, the issue was, well, I said I was going to do a million shots a week, and people said, ‘Biden can’t do that’ or “Biden team can’t do that.” And it was 2 million.’
FACTS: Biden’s initial goal was 1 million shots a day, not a week, in his first 100 days. His target was 100 million shots in the first 100 days. He then raised it to 200 million when the administration easily reached the target.
BIDEN: ‘We’ve created more jobs in the first six months of our administration than any time in American history. No president, no administration, has ever created as many jobs.’
THE FACTS: His claim is misleading.
While Biden’s administration in the first half year as president has seen more jobs created than any other president – just over 3 million in the five months tracked by jobs reports – that’s partly because the U.S. population is larger than in the past.
When calculated as a percentage of the workforce, job growth under President Jimmy Carter increased more quickly from February through June 1977 than the same five months this year: 2.2 per cent for Carter, compared with 2.1 per cent for Biden.
Since the late 1970s, the U.S. population has grown by more than 100 million people.
It’s true, though, that the economy is growing rapidly – it expanded at a 6.4 per cent annual rate in the first three months of the year – and is expected to grow this year at the fastest pace since 1984.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package contributed to the vigorous growth, but much of the expansion also reflects a broader bounce-back from the unusually sharp pandemic recession, the deepest downturn since the 1930s. Even before Biden’s package, for example, the International Monetary Fund was projecting U.S. growth of over 5 per cent for this year.
Biden is also leaving out the fact that the U.S. economy remains 6.8 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic level, and the unemployment rate is an elevated 5.9 per cent, up from a five-decade low of 3.5 per cent before the pandemic.
BIDEN: Said the price of a car is ‘kind of’ back to the same as it was ‘before the pandemic’.
FACTS: New car prices are significantly higher than then they were before the onset of the pandemic. According to the Consumer Price Index, new and used cars were 20% higher in June 2020 than they were in January 2020. That was 19% higher again on prices from June 19%.
CHILD TAX CREDIT
BIDEN: ‘It’s called the child tax credit. If you have a child under the age of 7, you get 300 bucks a month — 350 bucks a month. If you have a child under — between 7 and 17, you get a total of 200 bucks a month.
FACTS: The age groups used to determine the brackets are 6 to 17 and not 7 to 17 as Biden suggested. Parents receive up to $250 a month for each child between 6 and 17 and $350 for those under 6.
BIDEN: He criticized clauses in contracts that restrict employees’ abilities to move jobs in a similar industry by saying, ‘you have over 600,000 people out there signing – 6 million people signing a – I better check the number — of — signing noncompete agreements. Not because they have … any secret, but because they were working for one fast-food restaurant, and they’re told they can’t get 10 cents more going across town, going to the other fast-food restaurant. Why? To keep wages down.
FACTS: The numbers he used were not close to the real figures. A White House document published on July 9 suggests there are between 36 and 60 million workers under noncompete clauses, based off figures from the Economic Policy Institute.
‘UP TO 20 REPUBLICANS’ SIGNING LETTER SUPPORTING INFRASTRUCTURE
BIDEN: ‘You had up to 20 Republicans sign a letter saying, “We think we need this deal. We think we need this deal”,’ Biden said when discussing the bipartisanship in the ongoing negotiations over his infrastructure bill.
FACTS: Republican Sen. Rob Portman said 11 Republican senators sent a letter to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer suggesting they would vote no in the procedural vote on Wednesday. All 50 Republicans ended up voting against advancing the bill. Schumer is now trying to push through negotiations to launch another vote on Monday.
Amil Khan, founder of Valent Projects which studies online manipulation, pointed out that social media users gravitate towards content they already believed to be true.
‘So, the US administration’s focus on what is factually accurate is actually misplaced,’ he said.
‘The real issue is that social media platforms push content designed to keep people commenting, liking etcetera for as long as possible.
‘But that sort of content tends to be about things we feel strongly about. So, the problem actually centers around the ethics of the algorithms, not the content itself.’
For its part, Facebook says some 85 percent of its users in the U.S. had been vaccinated or planned to get the inoculation.
‘The Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,’ Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, wrote in a recent post.
‘The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the U.S. has increased.’
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about its strategy.
Conservatives expressed their anger in a letter to the president sent on Thursday, written by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the three top Republicans in the House – Leader Kevin McCarthy, Whip Steve Scalise and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik.
‘The federal government’s ongoing efforts to pressure private companies to censor speech that it disagrees with is alarming and an affront to the First Amendment,’ they wrote, in a letter obtained by Fox News.
‘It is the type of behavior we would expect from a Cuban dictator, not a President of the United States.’
They sent the letter to the Biden administration after the president’s town hall performance where he falsely told the audience that ‘you’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations’, and fumbled an answer on FDA approval of the shots.
‘Just like the other question, it’s illogical and I’ve heard you speak about it because I’m not being solicitous, but you’re always straight up about what you’re doing. And the question is whether or not we should be in a position where you, um, are, why can’t the, the, the experts say, we know that this virus is, in fact, um, uh, it it’s going to be, excuse me, we know why all the drugs are approved or not temporarily approved, but permanently approved. That’s under way, too. I expect that to occur quickly.’
Don Lemon then said: ‘Well, that means you mean for the FDA.’ Biden responded: ‘For the FDA’.
He also said: ‘If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized, you’re not going to be in an ICU unit, and you are not going to die.’
Elise Stefanik, the House Republican Chair, is one of four senior members of her party who wrote a letter to Joe Biden, accusing him of acting ‘like a Cuban dictator’. She is flanked, to her right, by Steve Scalise, another author of the letter
On Tuesday Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, said that social media companies should be held accountable for publishing misleading information on the COVID vaccine.
She also said the administration is reviewing Section 230 – a 1990s era ruling that prevents tech firms from being held liable for their content, in the way that newspaper and magazine publishers are.
Biden’s move is also being mirrored by a bill, introduced by Democrat Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ben Ray Lujan, to make tech firms liable for any misinformation on their platforms which they fail to remove. The ‘misinformation’ will be defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, under their proposal.
The Health Misinformation Act was introduced on Thursday, and has no Republican support.
In their letter, the House Republicans argue that government should not be involved in policing social media speech, pointing out that public health consensus has evolved.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was another of the co-authors of the letter
Masks were originally discouraged, and the idea that the virus could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory.
‘This is the problem with your censorship mission,’ they wrote to Biden.
‘Not only are you attacking the First Amendment, but your ‘truth’ might be wrong.’
The White House has been seeking help from Facebook and other social media sites since February on stopping misinformation from going viral, such as the myth that the vaccine will implant a microchip tracker.
‘Social media companies have a responsibility,’ Bedingfield said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, echoing a message that has come out of the White House this week as they try to raise the vaccination rate.
‘We’re reviewing that and certainly they should be held accountable.
‘I think you heard the president speak very aggressively about this.
‘It is also the responsibility of the people creating the content.
‘Again I go back to there are conservative news outlets creating irresponsible content sharing misinformation about the virus that’s getting shared on these platforms.
‘So it is a big and complicated ecosystem and everybody bears responsibility.’
The Biden administration is looking to make tech companies and social media firms end the spread of ‘misinformation’ about public health – but defining misinformation is problematic
‘Uh, um, uh, it’s going to be – or, excuse me, we, we’: Biden fumbling over his words during CNN town hall
Response to question on how to prevent misinformation
‘There are trusted interlocutors. Think of the people — if your kid wanted to find out whether or not there were — there’s a man on the moon, or whatever — you know, something, or, you know, whether those aliens are here or not — you know, who are the people they talk to beyond the kids who love talking about it? They go to people they respect, and they say, “What do you think?”’
Response to question about Capitol Riot conspiracy theorists
‘This is not who we are. And I’ll say one last thing — and you’re going to — I’ve had a lot of experience internationally. And I mean that — not good or bad, just I have; I’ve chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. I’ve been deeply involved. I did national security for the — our last — the — the — the administration with Barack.’
Response to question on vaccines for children
And the question is whether or not we should be in a position where you uh, um, are – why can’t the, the, the experts say we know that this virus is, in fact, uh, um, uh, it’s going to be – or, excuse me, we, we, we know why all the drugs approved are not temporarily approved by permanently approved. That’s underway too. I expect that to occur quickly,’
Response to question on restaurants struggling to wind workers
‘My — my deceased wife’s father-in-law was a restauranteur up in — up in Syracuse, New York. And, by the way, he tried to con- — he had a — had a restaurant that was in a town called Auburn, about 20,000 people, which was at a flagship 24-hour-a-day restaurant that — and he offered it to me, which I would have been making five times what I would in law school to try to keep me in Syracuse.
‘But I spent too many times at home hearing a — in his home, hearing a phone call: “The cook didn’t come in? He’s in a fight with his wife? What — what’s going on?”
Response to question on whether his unemployment benefits stopped people going back to work
‘I see no evidence it had any serious impact on it. But you can argue — let’s assume it did. It’s coming to an end, so it’s not like we’re in a situation where — if that was it and it ends, then we’re going to see John is going to have no problem.
‘But what I think is happening, folks, is, look, if you make less than fift- — and I’m not saying, John, your folks make less than 15 — you had good restaurants; that means their tips are good, people make a lot more than just what the — what the minimum wage — what the wage is being paid on with the — put tips on top of it.’