Is Facebook really to blame for the US not meeting vaccine goals?

Is Facebook really to blame for the US not meeting vaccine goals?
A journalist raises a hand to ask a question during United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s remarks at a news conference with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki at the White House in Washington, U.S., July  15, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
“We are not in a war or a battle with Facebook,” said Jen Psaki, “we’re in a battle with the virus.”

What does Facebook have to do with vaccines?

  • The Biden administration has put the blame largely on social media platforms, more specifically, Facebook Inc., for not hitting its vaccination targets in the United States.
  • According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, 12 people were responsible for nearly 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on all social media platforms, a finding reported in May by the Center for Countering Digital Hate – a nonprofit with offices in Washington and London.
  • Psaki also said that all 12 people are still active on Facebook, urging Facebook to take down harmful posts like it.
  • Psaki wasn’t the only White House official to make statements on the subject. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy made his first advisory as Surgeon General, asking tech companies to change their algorithm to demote and take down false information about vaccines.
  • President Joe Biden himself also spoke out against Facebook, saying social media platforms like Facebook, “are killing people.”
Facebook United States Vaccine Misinformation
U.S. President Joe Biden talks to the media as he departs for a weekend visit to Camp David from the White House in Washington, U.S., July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
  • And later, he walked back his comments and clarified that he didn’t mean that the platforms themselves are killing people, but rather the misinformation on them is.

What was Facebook’s response?

  • In a corporate blog post by Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, Facebook defended its platform, saying that not only was it not responsible for the US not reaching its vaccine goals, but also, the company had actually helped the situation.
  • Rosen’s argument was that, according to a survey put together by Facebook, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland, it showed that vaccine hesitancy in the US on Facebook has gone down by 50% and that vaccine acceptance has gone up 10-15%.
  • “The data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Rosen in the post. “President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.”
  • Rosen also pointed out that Facebook provides information about the vaccine, and said that 3.3 million Americans have used Facebook tools to find where to get a vaccine and an appointment.
  • Speaking to TMS, program coordinator of Master’s in social media at the University of Florida Andrew Selepak, thinks any blame put on Facebook is unjustified. “The fallacy of the argument is that people are somehow only getting their information about the vaccine from Facebook,” he explains.
  • “Instead people are getting their own information about the vaccine from traditional media, YouTube, Twitter, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and the Internet.”

What censorship problem?

  • Facebook, and social media platforms in general, are being attacked from both sides of the aisle right now, putting them in a bit of a tough situation.
  • From the left, the Biden administration, have essentially argued that Facebook isn’t doing enough to censor things like misinformation and lies from its platform, particularly when they can be problematic in the real world, like now with the vaccines.
  • But on the right, Republican leaders have argued that social media platforms censor conservative viewpoints, violating the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment.
  • To try to solve the problem, Facebook has created its own “Supreme Court,” to make decisions about controversial content issues.

Err, what does that mean?

  • The board included people like the former prime minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as well as other legal experts and scholars.
  • “Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own.” With our size comes a great deal of responsibility,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
  • But this pretty much backfired.
  • In May, when Facebook was trying to decide how long to suspend Donald Trump from its platform, it gave the case to the court it created.
  • The court essentially gave the issue back to Facebook, sending the message that it didn’t want to be a scapegoat for hard decisions and that Facebook had to take responsibility for things like that.

What’s next?

  • For the most part, it seems like the back-and-forth between the White House and Facebook has slowed.
  • “We are not in a war or a battle with Facebook,” said Jen Psaki, “we’re in a battle with the virus.”
  • What’s yet to be seen though, is if the increased pressure on these kinds of policies will ultimately result in higher vaccination rates.
  • So far, there hasn’t been much evidence that anything social media platforms have done has changed vaccination rates, but much of that is still in its early stages, so it’s possible that over time that might change.
  • As for the wider issue with censorship, the Republican lawsuit seems poised to fail, according to legal experts. With that said, it will likely be a bigger discussion, and might even manage to be a major topic for the upcoming 2022 midterm elections.

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