The federal government is stepping up its war on Facebook: President Joe Biden has accused Mark Zuckerberg's social media platform of failing to purge anti-vaccine content, thus contributing to vaccine hesitancy and "killing people," said the president.
Now the White House is considering methods of tinkering with Section 230, the federal statute that immunizes internet platforms from legal liability, in order to punish Facebook for failing to do everything the government wants.
"We're reviewing that, and certainly they should be held accountable," said Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, in response to a question about Section 230 posed by Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski.
Biden has long supported getting rid of Section 230, though it would take an act of Congress to do so. Ironically, Section 230 is equally unpopular with many Republicans—including former President Donald Trump, who has called for its total repeal—because they consider it a sort of special perk enjoyed by tech companies that are purportedly hostile to conservative users. But the Biden administration's latest threats should disabuse Republicans of their anti-230 notions once and for all. The White House wants Facebook to proactively censor more content, and views Section 230 as an obstacle getting in the way of that goal. Repealing Section 230 is thus not a great solution to the alleged problem of tech companies banning too many provocative right-wing accounts; Democrats in the federal government want to repeal Section 230 so that tech companies have no choice but to ban more content.
Anti-Facebook Republicans are making a tactical error; the Biden White House, on the other hand, is just plain wrong about the degree to which social media is responsible for vaccine hesitancy. By focusing on the perceived harms of too much anti-vax content on Facebook, the administration is neglecting a dozen other strategies it could pursue to boost countrywide vaccination.
For one, it's far from clear that social media—or Facebook in particular—is predominantly responsible for vaccine hesitancy, a problem that predates the internet. Facebook users are actually more likely to be vaccinated than the average U.S. citizen, according to the company's data.
"The data shows that 85 percent of Facebook users in the U.S. have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19," wrote Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president of integrity. "President Biden's goal was for 70 percent of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed."
Misinformation exists on every medium and in every form of communication from radio to television to word of mouth. The government itself has spread misinformation about COVID-19, from early (bad) guidance on masks to coronavirus czar Anthony Fauci's deliberate misstatements about herd immunity. Even when it comes to vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was initially cautious about letting vaccinated individuals discard masks and social distancing protocols, which might have made the vaccine seem pointless for some low-risk individuals. It's naive to presume that social media is the primary driver of vaccine hesitancy.
"We don't have good measures of what people see on social media or any ability to link it to their vaccination behavior," noted Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who thinks the harm posed by social media is overstated.
Even the focus on Facebook, as opposed to other sites like YouTube—where anti-vaccine content is probably more widespread—betrays the government's limited understanding of the scope of these issues. It seems that many Democrats still incorrectly attribute Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss to Facebook malfeasance: They have updated their grievances but retained the same target for misplaced ire.
If the White House wants to promote vaccination—a worthy goal!—it should stop being so obsessed with what's happening on Facebook, and social media more broadly. Instead, Biden should push the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to, you know, actually approve the vaccines, which are currently available under emergency use authorization. Despite the global pandemic, federal regulators are proceeding as if there's no reason to rush: Full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine is not expected until January. If the government wants to ease reluctant people's trepidation that the vaccines are in some sense experimental, moving faster on this front would do more good than heckling Mark Zuckerberg.