“They’re killing people,” President Biden told reporters on Friday. The president was responding to a question about the role of misinformation in fueling distrust toward COVID-19 vaccines. With large cities like Los Angeles renewing indoor mask mandates amid soaring cases of the new Delta variant, the administration is trying to drive home the message that vaccines work to stop the deadliest advances of the virus but says misinformation on platforms like Facebook is sowing skepticism.
Several hours later, NBC News reporter Dylan Byers tweeted a response from an anonymous Facebook official, who defended the company’s handling of the pandemic. “We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” the official said. “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.”
The official continued: “More than 3.3 million Americans have also used our vaccine finder tool to find out where and how to get a vaccine. The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”
Facebook has faced extended criticism dating back to at least 2016 for allowing misinformation to thrive on its massive platform. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory, several reports emerged that Russian hackers, at the behest of Russian President Vladamir Putin, weaponized Facebook’s platform to spread misinformation among American voters. Much more disruptive for the company was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which more than 86 million users’ data was hacked and shared on the internet. Both scandals underscore Facebook’s massive reach, and critics have called for stricter regulation.
On December 9, 2020, 48 attorneys general filed suit against Facebook, calling it an “illegal monopoly.”
“For nearly a decade, Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users,” New York State Attorney General James said in a statement at the time. “Today, we are taking action to stand up for the millions of consumers and many small businesses that have been harmed by Facebook’s illegal behavior.”
Critics have argued that Facebook was allowed to get too big, amassing so much power that it crushed competition like Snap and simply bought rivals like WhatsApp (for $19 million) and Instagram (for $1 billion).
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has made Facebook’s platform an even more in-demand source of critical information. Here’s Shira Ovide at the New York Times:
Last fall, a coalition of misinformation researchers found that about half of all retweets related to multiple and widely spread false claims of election interference could be traced back to just 35 Twitter accounts, including those of Mr. Trump and the conservative activist Charlie Kirk. A research group recently identified the accounts of about a dozen people, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who repeatedly — sometimes for years — pushed discredited information about vaccines or, more recently, false “cures” for Covid-19.
The central question in the debate is whether Facebook is merely a platform or, in fact, a publisher, responsible for getting the facts wrong.