The surgeon general was stern and authoritative, if not a little out of his normal purview.
Vivek Murthy explained in the White House briefing room this week that advisories from the surgeon general were “reserved for urgent public health threats,” an area that generally begins and ends with the human body. The foods we eat. The medicines we take. The substances we use and sometimes abuse.
But President Biden’s top doctor expanded that sphere of influence Thursday when he declared misinformation about the coronavirus “an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health” and then dropped a 22-page report that included, among other things, a whole page detailing “what technology platforms can do.”
Murthy asserted that tech giants like Facebook and Twitter are not doing enough to slow the spread of misinformation, particularly about the safety of the COVID vaccine. “Simply put,” he said, “health misinformation has cost us lives.” The administration, he continued, is asking social media companies to do more to monitor bad information, and “we’re asking them to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platform.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki added later that the federal government is engaged in “disinformation research and tracking.” What’s more, she said, “we are flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.”
But that overlap of science and politics has raised the alarm among some who say the White House should not be working with any company to censor anything, even disinformation about a critically important vaccine.
It is not clear either how the administration is going about its work. For instance, Psaki said Thursday the administration is “flagging problematic posts.” On Friday, the president’s spokeswoman seemed to indicate that the federal government was simply identifying general areas of concern.
RealClearPolitics asked the White House to detail its process, specifically how it identifies misinformation and flags it for social media companies; how many times it has done so; and for how long it has been doing so. RCP also asked if the administration had any First Amendment safeguards in place. “To be crystal clear,” Psaki responded, “any decision about platform usage and who should be on the platform is orchestrated and determined by private sector companies.”
She did not answer the specific questions about the size or scope of the federal effort, and the White House did not respond to RCP’s follow-up request for clarification.
The press secretary responded instead in the briefing room that, while the federal government identifies misinformation, social media companies have their own rules for how to police that content, “and that is their decision to do; that is not the federal government doing that.”
The back-and-forth comes at a moment when vaccination rates are lagging. The Biden administration achieved significant early success getting shots into arms, but now inoculation hesitancy and outright resistance present significant hurdles to finishing the job. Misinformation about side effects, particularly when amplified over social media, has caused some skeptics to skip the vaccine just as a dangerous variant of the virus is spreading. Biden is losing patience.
“They’re killing people,” the president said when asked what his message was to Facebook. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” he shouted to reporters over the whirl of Marine One’s helicopter rotors. “And they’re killing people.”
The White House insists that all it wants to do is “save lives.” But critics such as Rep. Thomas Massie have compared their efforts to tropes in the dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The Kentucky Republican accused the White House of “‘Ministry of Truth’ level malfeasance.”
Complicating matters is that the definition of what is and isn’t misinformation can and does change. For instance, the theory that the coronavirus escaped a biomedical lab in Wuhan, China, was largely dismissed early on in the pandemic, with major news outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post labeling it a xenophobic conspiracy theory. Facebook warned its users about spreading “false or misleading” information about the origins of the virus.
But the head of the World Health Organization admitted just Thursday that it was “premature” to dismiss that possibility. “I was a lab technician myself, I'm an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It's common.”
Whether it is misinformation about the vaccine or the origins of the virus, the content does not matter. At least, so say many Republicans. They argue that coordination with Big Tech companies to censor speech is patently unconstitutional. “The government can't censor speech. The First Amendment makes that very clear,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee said during an interview with Fox News. “They’re a private for-profit corporation that can make its own decisions, but when it's doing that in collusion with government, it looks to me a lot like a First Amendment violation.”
One thing is for certain. The White House does not appreciate the Big Brother comparisons or the suggestion that it is snooping on Americans through social media. Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy learned that much when he asked how long the administration has “been spying on peoples’ Facebook profiles looking for vaccine misinformation.”
“Well, that was quite a loaded and inaccurate question, which I would refute," Psaki responded.
"We’re in regular touch with a range of media outlets ... as we are in regular touch with social media platforms. This is publicly open information, people sharing information online. Just as you are all reporting information on your news stations,” she added.
What happens when the scientific consensus changes? For instance, what if the advice given previously by experts is no longer valid? Doocy noted videos still available online of Dr. Anthony Fauci telling people early in the pandemic not to wear masks. Will the White House ask Facebook to remove those videos? “Dr. Fauci has said himself,” Psaki responded, “that science evolves, information evolves. And we make that available in a public way to the American people.”