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‘They’re Killing People’? Biden Isn’t Quite Right, but He’s Not Wrong.


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It was a stunning thing to say, even if it is in many ways true.

“They’re killing people,” President Biden said loudly enough to be heard under the roar of his Marine One helicopter idling on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday.

He was talking not about terrorists or leaders of rogue nations or even gun manufacturers. He was talking Silicon Valley tech moguls, most specifically people like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the top two leaders of Facebook, and their platform’s role in allowing dangerous misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines to spread far and wide.

“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that’s — they’re killing people,” he said when asked to send a message to social media platforms amid a surge of infections in areas where people are refusing the shots.

This message has clearly been coordinated as tensions have increased between the Biden administration and Facebook particularly. That had been signaled earlier in the week in a much less stark way by Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s press secretary, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Ms. Psaki pointed to a public health crisis as the reason to pressure social media companies, which also faced difficultly trying to balance concerns about protecting speech with the danger of some misinformation.

And in an interview with me two weeks ago, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, also seemed to be laying the groundwork for putting the blame on Facebook for the administration not reaching its promised goal of 70 percent vaccinated by July 4: “Facebook itself has built a number of tools to help people find vaccines and so on and so forth. But I’ve told Mark Zuckerberg directly that when we gather groups of people who are not vaccinated and we ask them, why aren’t you vaccinated, and they tell us things that are wrong, tell us things that are untrue, and we ask them where they’ve heard that, the most common answer is Facebook.”

As you might imagine, Facebook did not agree with this characterization.

“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” a company spokesman said in a statement. “The fact is that more than two billion people have viewed authoritative information about Covid-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet. 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.”

Period? Hardly. More like a semicolon, if I had to pick a punctuation.

The truth is that Facebook serves as a gateway to both, presenting clearly solid information about Covid, as well as a place where an enormous flood of lies about it has overwhelmed the same zone — and for a much longer time.

Back in May of last year, for example, as noted in The New York Times, there was “Plandemic.” That is a 26-minute video alleging that a secret group of powerful people were using the virus and the upcoming vaccines to make money and consolidate control over the world.

“Plandemic,” The Times reported, “went online on May 4 when its maker, Mikki Willis, a little-known film producer, posted it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and a separate website set up to share the video. For three days, it gathered steam across Facebook pages dedicated to conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccine movement, most of which linked to the video hosted on YouTube. Then it tipped into the mainstream and exploded. Just over a week after ‘Plandemic’ was released, it had been viewed more than eight million times on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and had generated countless other posts.”

That was just at the start, as good and bad information raced against each other throughout the year, with some of the bad information having come from the occupant of the White House at the time, Donald Trump. While it is certainly not Facebook’s fault that Mr. Trump chose to muse about how the virus was going to go away just like that, or rail about not wearing masks, or talk about injecting yourself with bleach to become immune, the company and others tolerated such nonsense from him for far too long. They tossed him off only after he used their tools to help incite the assault on the Capitol, and it was — as always — too little, too late and too, well, lame.

In this era, the media driver’s seat is controlled here and worldwide by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, which makes them an easy target for the Biden administration. While one could just as easily also cast aspersions — I did and will again — at the blatantly false pandemic jeremiads on Fox News at the beginning of the crisis (it’s not as bad as the flu!), in the middle (no masks!) and in the end (endless rage against vaccines or the mere suggestion of vaccine requirements).

You could also blame individuals themselves for believing in lies and not doing due diligence and checking their facts. After all, deciding to forgo a vaccine is a personal choice, even if it is an unfortunate one.

But the ability to resist social media juggernauts pales in comparison to the tremendous power of these platforms to amplify bad information. Attempting to stop falsehoods by claiming to offer good information is like using a single sandbag to hold back an impossibly fetid ocean. It’s like that when it comes to a range of once-anodyne, now divisive issues, from election integrity to critical race theory to whatever, keeping this country in a constant state of twitchy confusion.

Is Facebook killing people, then, since it provided the invention that allows all this to happen? Not exactly. But it reminds me of the famous quotation that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” which is — ironically — misattributed to Mark Twain (it is considered to actually be a version of a line first written by Jonathan Swift).

Wherever it came from, it remains even more prescient, except now lies travel much faster — thanks to Facebook.

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