Free Speech

Biden White House Pressured Facebook To Censor Lab Leak Posts

"Can someone quickly remind me why we were removing—rather than demoting/labeling—claims that Covid is man made," asked Meta's president for global affairs.


President Joe Biden's White House pushed Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to censor contrarian COVID-19 content, including speculation about the virus having escaped from a lab, vaccine skepticism, and even jokes.

"Can someone quickly remind me why we were removing—rather than demoting/labeling—claims that Covid is man made," asked Nick Clegg, president for global affairs at the company, in a July 2021 email to his coworkers.

A content moderator replied, "We were under pressure from the administration and others to do more. We shouldn't have done it."

These and other emails obtained by Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio) and The Wall Street Journal provide further evidence of the federal government's vast efforts to curb dissent online. As I reported in Reason's March 2023 issue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) communicated frequently with Facebook content moderators and pushed them to take down posts that contradicted the guidance of federal health advisers:

According to a trove of confidential documents obtained by Reason, health advisers at the CDC had significant input on pandemic-era social media policies at Facebook as well. They were consulted frequently, at times daily. They were actively involved in the affairs of content moderators, providing constant and ever-evolving guidance. They requested frequent updates about which topics were trending on the platforms, and they recommended what kinds of content should be deemed false or misleading. "Here are two issues we are seeing a great deal of misinfo on that we wanted to flag for you all," reads one note from a CDC official. Another email with sample Facebook posts attached begins: "BOLO for a small but growing area of misinfo."

These Facebook Files show that the platform responded with incredible deference. Facebook routinely asked the government to vet specific claims, including whether the virus was "man-made" rather than zoonotic in origin. (The CDC responded that a man-made origin was "technically possible" but "extremely unlikely.") In other emails, Facebook asked: "For each of the following claims, which we've recently identified on the platform, can you please tell us if: the claim is false; and, if believed, could this claim contribute to vaccine refusals?"

The fact that the White House was engaged in the exact same behavior as the CDC is not remotely surprising; indeed, it's already well-known that Biden staffers harangued social media moderators, though these specific emails have not previously been released.

The Wall Street Journal's reporting demonstrates once again that the platforms themselves were deeply skeptical of the government's directions:

"The WH has previously indicated that it thinks humor should be removed if it is premised on the vaccine having side effects, so we expect it would similarly want to see humor about vaccine hesitancy removed," the vice president wrote.

"I can't see Mark in a million years being comfortable with removing that—and I wouldn't recommend it," Clegg wrote in a subsequent email, an apparent reference to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In some of the emails, Facebook executives expressed concern that removing posts in which Americans expressed hesitation about getting vaccinated could actually make them less likely to get a shot.

All of these disclosures show that it's pointless to be angry with social media companies—they were put in a very difficult position. Supporters of free speech must direct their ire toward the federal government and demand that government officials stop engaging in this behavior.

Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) has proposed a bill along these lines. I interviewed him about it here.