President Joe Biden attempted to de-escalate a war of words he started last week with Facebook, walking back a statement he made about the platform "killing people" due to its failure to curb misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.
Biden made the comments on Friday while speaking to reporters, saying of social media platforms and Facebook in particular, "They’re killing people. The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people."
His comments followed a day after his Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory that labeled misinformation about the vaccines an "urgent threat" to public health nationally. As The Hill reports, Murthy said in his own comments to reporters, "[Technology companies have] allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation — what we call ‘disinformation’ — to have extraordinary reach."
Facebook responded, with spokesperson Dani Lever issuing a statement:
"We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts. The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet. More than 3.3 million Americans have also used our vaccine finder tool to find out where and how to get a vaccine."
Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president of integrity, also issued a statement Saturday saying, "President Biden's goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed."
On Monday, in answer to a question from a CNN reporter, Biden sort of tried to soften his earlier comment, saying, "Facebook isn't killing people — these 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It's killing people. It's bad information."
Biden was referring to a March report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) that suggested that about 12 individuals were responsible for spreading 60% of the vaccine misinformation currently on social platforms.
Biden continued, "My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally, that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine. That's what I meant."
When asked if he was aware of any intensifying efforts by Facebook to remove disinformation about the vaccines, he gave a vague reply saying, "To be completely honest with you, I don't know that they did anything today, up to the weekend. I don't think they had. But I don't know, I don't know the answer to that question."
President Biden clarifies his comment saying Facebook is “killing people”: “My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally … that they would do something about the misinformation about the vaccine.” pic.twitter.com/cXts1vN3uq— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 19, 2021
The dustup with Facebook is just the latest salvo in a bipartisan war of words between Washington politicians and social media companies, and indicates that the companies won't necessarily have a friend in Biden after sustaining regular attacks from Trump.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki further tried to de-escalate things in her Monday afternoon briefing, saying that the administration "is not in a war or battle with Facebook" but in a "battle with the virus."
When asked if regulatory measures might be coming for Facebook and others, Psaki said it would be "up to Congress to determine how they want to proceed moving forward."
Update: The New York Times published a story late Monday suggesting that Facebook has no internal tracking mechanism for assessing the spread of misinformation about COVID, the vaccines, or anything. A team was reportedly proposed early in the pandemic that would be devoted to figuring out this data, but the company never put it in place, and now it's being asked to produce that data for the White House.
Top image: President Joe Biden speaks about the nation's economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the State Dining Room of the White House on July 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden also reiterated his hope that Facebook will better police vaccine misinformation on their platform. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)