Late last week President Joe Biden achieved something I’d thought impossible: He got me to feel bad for Mark Zuckerberg.
Sure, it was only a little bad, but that’s no small feat. As I spent the weekend brushing up on funereal dirges to play on my tiny violin, I couldn’t help but marvel at the president’s rhetorical shoddiness regarding Facebook’s role in Americans’ refusal to get vaccinated, the most important obstacle to the nation’s full recovery from the pandemic.
By accusing Facebook and other social media companies of “killing people” through what Biden said was their lax policing of vaccine misinformation, the president reduced the complex scourge of runaway vaccine hesitancy into a cartoonishly simple matter of product design: If only Facebook would hit its Quit Killing People button, America would be healed again.
Worse, Biden fed into the bogus right-wing notion that Facebook and other social media giants now operate as media arms of the Democratic Party, a belief that will only undermine whatever greater action against vaccine nonsense that the companies might take. If Facebook decides tomorrow to ban all criticism of the COVID-19 vaccines, its actions will be instantly undermined as Big Tech censoring “the truth” to satisfy the radical left or some other such reflexive dismissal. On cue, The Wall Street Journal editorial board declared Monday that Biden was only criticizing Facebook because “Facebook has bent to politicians far too much, inviting this latest assault.”
Finally, in the blundering way he took on the tech giants, Biden illustrated the profound challenges that bedevil calls for stricter regulation of social media. Facebook and Twitter, like The New York Times and Fox News, enjoy a right protected by the First Amendment to post or to amplify — or to not post or not amplify — just about any legal content they care to.
In a free society, a president accusing a media company — even one whose chief executive insists it’s not a media company — of mass death simply for disseminating legal content should make us all a little uncomfortable. Sure, Facebook has a right to kick you off its site for lying about vaccines — but if the president fiercely extols Facebook to do so, the argument that you’re being censored by the government becomes a lot more plausible.
You might defend Biden’s passion here on the grounds of public health. But it’s probably past the point of utility. Researchers who study vaccine hesitancy say that social networks play a huge role in the spread of dangerous lies about vaccines. Perhaps there was a time, months or years ago, when Facebook and other social media companies had the power to stop the anti-vaccine movement from swallowing up so many Americans.
But if that was ever the case, there is little evidence it still is. Polls show that about a fifth of Americans refuse to get a COVID vaccine, and the divide is highly partisan. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump has noted, states that voted for Donald Trump in the last election are suffering vaccination rates far lower than states that went for Biden. This suggests the anti-vaccine movement has achieved a kind of cultural escape velocity.
Consider, after all, how widely anti-vaccine lies are now echoed on the right — vaccine misinformation has become a staple of Fox News, conservative talk radio, prominent Republican members of Congress and many organs of conservatism.
Biden, thankfully, seems to have quickly realized his comments were unhelpful. After Facebook pointed out that a survey it sponsored found that 85% of its American users are vaccinated against COVID or plan to be, the president conceded that “Facebook isn’t killing people” but said that a handful of Facebook members are doing so by spreading lies about the vaccines.
I’m glad he did so. But I worry that by dragging the vaccines further into the partisan mire, Biden’s slip-up will cause long-term damage in the effort to get Americans to trust these miraculous shots.
Renée DiResta, the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory and an expert on how the anti-vaccine movement has spread online, has said that one of the main reasons the movement has taken off is the savvy way it has navigated new currents in media.
While the American public health community repeatedly bungled its messages on COVID, online influencers understood “how to gain the confidence of people they will never meet, make content that captures attention, and persuade audiences to take action,” DiResta wrote in April. A worthy countercampaign, she suggested, would embrace the same distributed model — it will require an army of family doctors, religious leaders and other trusted local officials to slowly and deliberately undo the lies about vaccines that have seeped into the culture.
In a lengthy document published last week, Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, issued a similar call for a distributed effort against vaccine hesitancy. Of course, inspiring such a countermovement will not be easy. Much simpler to just blame Facebook.
Farhad Manjoo is a columnist for The New York Times.