WASHINGTON – Facebook on Saturday rejected the Biden administration’s denunciation of the social media giant for spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines, escalating tensions between the Silicon Valley company and the White House.
In a blog post, Facebook urged the government to stop “pointing the finger” and set out what it had done to encourage users to vaccinate. The social network also described how it cracked down on lies about the vaccines, which officials said led to people refusing to be vaccinated.
“The Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,” said Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, in the post. “The fact is that the adoption of vaccines by Facebook users in the US has increased.”
Mr Rosen added that the company’s data showed that 85 percent of its users in the United States were or were about to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While President Biden’s goal was to have 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4th, which the White House missed, “Facebook isn’t the reason it missed that target,” Rosen said.
Facebook’s response follows a firm condemnation of the company by Mr Biden. When asked on Friday about the role of social media in influencing vaccinations, Mr Biden stated in unusually strong language that the platforms “kill people”.
“Look,” he added, “the only pandemic we have is that of the unvaccinated, and that – and they kill people.”
Other White House officials have also grown louder as social media intensified vaccine flights.
July 18, 2021, 12:38 p.m. ET
On Thursday, Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, accused social media companies of not doing enough to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation about health, calling it a national health crisis that had fueled vaccination reluctance among Americans. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also called for misinformation “that is causing people not to take the vaccine and people to die from it.” She said the White House was responsible for bringing up the issue.
The White House declined to comment on Facebook’s blog post on Saturday.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have long struggled with their role as platforms for speech while protecting their users from disinformation campaigns such as Russian efforts to influence presidential elections or false statements about the pandemic.
In the past few months, Facebook has taken steps against anti-vaccination advertisements and misrepresentation about the vaccines. In October, it announced that it would no longer allow ads against vaccinations on its platform. In February, the company went ahead and said it would remove false claims posts about vaccines, including claims that vaccines cause autism or that it is safer for people to contract the coronavirus than receiving the vaccinations.
But online misinformation about the vaccines has not been eradicated. Lies have been spread that vaccines can alter DNA or that vaccines won’t work.
On Saturday, Mr Rosen said in the blog post that American Facebook users’ reluctance to take vaccines had decreased by 50 percent since April and vaccine acceptance had increased by 10 to 15 percentage points, or from 70 percent to over 80 percent.
“Although social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a society-wide approach to end this pandemic,” said Rosen. “And facts – not allegations – should help support this effort.”
The White House’s frustration with Facebook has increased over several months, said those knowledgeable about the matter. While the Biden government asked Facebook to share information about the spread of misinformation on the social network, the company refused to cooperate, the people said.
On Friday, White House digital director Robert Flaherty said in a tweet: “I think the question remains simple: How many people have seen misinformation about Covid vaccines on Facebook?”