According to Vanity Fair, “With inoculation rates dropping nationwide and the highly contagious Delta variant driving new infections in nearly every state, the White House faces increased urgency to combat a right-wing misinformation war on COVID-19 vaccines without playing into the hand of Republicans politicizing the vaccination effort.”
Last Thursday, White House officials targeted a group of 12 people dubbed the “disinformation dozen.” Appearing to cite statistics from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “There’s about 12 people who are producing 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a health advisory released Thursday that health misinformation in the United States is a “serious threat to public health” as it can “cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts.” He added that “Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative.”
A nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Jr., is identified as part of the “Disinformation Dozen.”
On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that “President Biden’s attack on Facebook Inc. on Friday followed months of mounting private frustration inside his administration over the social-media giant’s handling of vaccine misinformation, according to U.S. officials, bringing into public view tensions that could complicate efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.”
Speaking to CNN, a person familiar with conversations pointed “specifically to Kennedy’s still-active Facebook account as an example of what some White House officials view as Facebook’s inaction regarding Covid-19 misinformation.”
After Biden on Friday responded to a question from a reporter about COVID-19 misinformation on social media by saying “They’re killing people,” Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen wrote that “The data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19.” Adding that Facebook is not responsible for the administration missing its goal of getting 70% of Americans vaccinated, Rosen said that the company “employed similar tactics in the UK and Canada, which have similar rates of Facebook usage to the US, and those countries have achieved more than 70% vaccination of eligible populations.”
Biden on Monday walked back his initial remarks saying, “Facebook isn’t killing people” but added that “These 12 people who are out there giving misinformation – anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it.”
Despite assurances from the company that it’s doing all it can to curb misinformation, new research released Tuesday by Media Matters for America found “at least 284 public and private anti-vaccine Facebook groups — with over 520,000 combined members — that were spreading COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and/or conspiracy theories.” This is more than double the 117 anti-vaccine groups Media Matters reported in April.
Media Matters found that 60% of these groups are private, making them more difficult to moderate, and identified six groups with over 15,000 member that violate Facebooks policy against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is ubiquitous across the largest social media platforms in the country but they are not the only ones responsible. Political figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose Twitter account was temporarily suspended Monday for spreading vaccine misinformation, and others further compound the dilemma.
“Once the COVID vaccine topic became politicized, the effort to limit misinformation became infinitely harder,” write Sara Fischer and Scott Rosenberg for Axios. “It also became an argument that many companies and executives are loath to squelch. Banning harmful misinformation about vaccines is good public health practice, but barring political debate about them looks like a kind of censorship.”