WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is pressing Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to ban content and restrict accounts that espouse “health misinformation” and anti-vaccine sentiments.
“They’re killing people,” President Joe Biden said from the White House lawn on July 16 in reference to social media content opposed to COVID vaccines. “Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”
Biden’s comments are part of a new, stepped-up effort by the U.S. government to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates by combating “health misinformation” and anti-vaccine advocates on social media.
The government push is also stirring concerns from libertarians and former President Donald Trump that the adminstration is using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as de-facto censors.
The Biden administration argues its social media push is about saving lives with public health officials’ concerns over the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
“Misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy during remarks to reporters at the White House. “We must confront misinformation as a nation. Lives are depending on it.”
Murthy is also calling for new health education training for school children as well as journalists. Murthy also wants social media companies to up their policing of content and increase enforcement of platform rules.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. government has been “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation” and wants a social media crackdown on a cadre of vaccine skeptics and opponents.
“There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. All of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms, including Facebook — ones that Facebook owns,” Psaki said.
The White House push mirrors a report by the progressive Center for Countering Digital Hate identifying the 12 most influential voices skeptical of vaccines. That list includes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joseph Mercola and Kelly Brogan.
Facebook pressed back against Biden’s comments saying it is helping promote and educate on COVID vaccines.
“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in a statement. “The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet.”
Twitter, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube have been restricting and banning conservative, pro-Trump, QAnon and anti-vaccine voices and accounts especially since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump has been banned from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He is suing the social media outlets. Part of Trump’s legal push is that the U.S. government is using private social media companies to censor content and speech.
“The tech companies are doing the government’s bidding, colluding to censor unapproved ideas. This coercion and coordination is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has held that Congress can’t use private actors to achieve what the Constitution prohibits it from doing itself,” Trump said in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “In effect, ‘Big Tech’ has been illegally deputized as the censorship arm of the U.S. government.”
Libertarians are also worried about the squelching of speech and dissent on social media during pandemic, the 2020 election and after the Jan. 6 riot. They also are concerned about social media giants doing the government’s censorship bidding.
“The federal government shouldn’t be dictating what is misinformation and impermissible in public discourse. We are human beings who have the right to communicate with others and assess info without government interference. Free speech is an essential element of a free society,” said U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. “Americans deserve to know to what extent the federal government works with social media companies. Is there any quid pro quo? The First Amendment exists to keep the government from controlling what Americans hear. Free societies counter misinformation with information, not bans.”
There is vaccine hesitancy and opposition ranging from African Americans and Hispanics with historical mistrust of government health pushes to Trump supporters with more contemporary trepidations.
The Maryland Department of Health reported Saturday that 57.8% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports 161 million Americans are fully vaccinated. That translates to 48.5% of the total U.S. population and 59.4 of the adult population.
The government social media push comes as public health officials raise concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19. They worry it will lead to a rise in hospitalizations for COVID. Some jurisdictions — including Los Angeles County — are looking to reimpose mask rules.
There have been more than 606,500 deaths attributed to COVID in the U.S, according to the CDC. The U.S. government worries about the Delta variant and a potential rise in cases among the unvaccinated.
There are currently 134 hospitalizations in Maryland attributed to COVID, according to the state’s health agency on July 17. That is up 14 patients from Friday but is down from the more than 1,900 COVID hospitalizations statewide in January, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
The positivity rate for COVID tests is 1.21% (well below the 5% threshold set by health agencies) and there have been 9,563 deaths attributed to the virus during the pandemic statewide.
Locally, the Talbot County Health Department reported three new COVID cases on Friday, July 16. There are five active cases in the county with a low positivity rate 0.99% for COVID tests.