As vaccination rates grow more sluggish, the White House is pointing the finger at social media platforms, especially Facebook. The President recently went as far as to suggest Facebook is killing people. Now the administration is pushing the platform and some saying it's crossing the line of free speech.
To be clear, the White House has not demanded Facebook or any other social media platform do anything, although it did 'flag' posts for Facebook that the Biden admin considers to be 'misinformation'. Still, some say no matter how it's done, a White House recommendation can come off as a mandate. In this case, one that could stymie free speech.
A few words uttered by President Biden last week touched off a firestorm when he was asked what his message is for platforms like Facebook.
"We're killing people," Biden said. "The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated and they're killing people."
Critics said the president was vilifying and bullying social media, Facebook in particular, and attempting to interfere with free speech. Biden clarified Monday.
"My hope is that Facebook instead of taking it personally that I'm saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about this information, this outrageous misinformation about the vaccine," Biden said.
Still, the administration is going on the offensive against what they consider COVID misinformation.
"I issued a surgeon general's advisory on dangers of health misinformation," US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said of his rare move reserved for urgent public health threats. "Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users."
"We're flagging problematic posts for Facebook the spread disinformation," added White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
The White House is making a number of asks of Facebook including that the platform disclose the reach of COVID-19 misinformation to the public, that it creates an enforcement strategy across all of its companies, that it removes misinformation quicker, and that the platform promotes quality COVID information in its algorithms.
Psaki pointed to the so-called disinformation dozen - 12 people believed to be responsible for 73% of all anti-vaccine content on social media.
"All of them remain active on Facebook despite being banned on other platforms including ones that Facebook owns," Psaki said.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa you can't urge these platforms to rein in speech," said Jon Schweppe, director of Public and Government Affairs at the American Principles Project.
"We have a long tradition in this country of respecting free speech and free expression, even when it's ugly, even when it's frustrating," Schweppe said. "When they put this pressure on these private companies to censor and to remove content, it's definitely a question mark when it comes to the First Amendment. It kinda comes across as 'hey that's a nice company you get there, it would be a shame if something were to happen to it.' I mean it is a threat."
For its part, Facebook defended itself against the administration's accusations with a blog which said in part:
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have removed over 18 million instances of COVID-19 misinformation. We have also labeled and reduced the visibility of more than 167 million pieces of COVID-19 content debunked by our network of fact-checking partners."
Conservatives say that's more than 185 million admissions of censorship.
But the White House remains dogmatic. One reporter asked Psaki about Facebook users who may now feel like Big Brother is watching.
"They're more concerned about that than people dying across the country because of a pandemic where misinformation is traveling on social media platforms?" Psaki pushed back. "That feels unlikely to me. If you have the data to back that up, I'm happy to discuss it."
Conservatives are rallying together against what they see as a threat to free speech coming from the White House. The Media Research Center is circulating a letter that they're asking people to sign urging the Biden administration to change its course of action.