President Joe Biden continued to put pressure on Facebook on Monday over the online dissemination of Covid-19 vaccine information, but backed off his recent accusation that the company was directly responsible for "killing people" and suggested it was merely allowing misinformation to spread.
Asked by CNN about the comment, Biden said, "I meant precisely what I said. I'm glad you asked me that question."
"Facebook isn't killing people -- these 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It's killing people. It's bad information," Biden said, appearing to cite data from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). A report published by the organization in March indicated that about a dozen people were super-spreaders of anti-vaccine misinformation.
"My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally, that somehow I'm saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine. That's what I meant," the President continued, following a speech at the White House about the state of the economy.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated late last week that the Biden White House "clearly" didn't find Facebook's response to misinformation sufficient. But asked on Monday whether the platform had done enough, Biden said he was unsure about the company's more recent efforts.
"To be completely honest with you, I don't know that they did anything today, up to the weekend. I don't think they had. But I don't know, I don't know the answer to that question," he said.
Joe Biden backs away from his claim that Facebook is 'killing people' by allowing Covid misinformation
And asked whether he would take steps to hold the company accountable if they don't do more, Biden said, "I'm not trying to hold people accountable, I'm trying to make people look at themselves, look in the mirror. Think about that misinformation going to your son, your daughter, your relative, someone you love. That's what I'm asking."
Senior administration officials have remained in touch with Facebook over the last several days as tensions between the White House and the social media platform have escalated. Officials have continued to talk with the company behind the scenes, a senior aide told CNN later Monday, but the White House doesn't believe further conversations will shift the dynamic much.
Biden officials believe the company is fully aware of the actions they want to see taken when it comes to the spread of coronavirus misinformation -- and for its part -- Facebook has pushed back on the White House's pressure campaign by pointing to misinformation they have removed or information about the vaccines they have elevated.
Still, administration officials believe the company's current actions aren't enough given how much misinformation continues to circulate.
Earlier in the day, Psaki said that the White House is "not in a war or battle with Facebook" but in a "battle with the virus."
Asked whether Biden's comments mean there will be no regulatory actions on the matter, Psaki said: "I don't think we've taken any options off the table. That's up to Congress to determine how the want to proceed moving forward."
The extraordinary spat between the White House and Facebook over Covid disinformation has pit the President against one of the country's most prominent companies as the race to vaccinate continues and Covid cases spread.
The escalating war of words comes after growing frustration at the White House over what they say are inadequate steps by the social media platform to control the spread of anti-vaccine disinformation.
Responding to Biden's comments about Facebook "killing people" last week, the company seemed to reflect blame back onto the administration.
"President Biden's goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed," Guy Rose, Facebook's vice president of integrity, wrote in a post on the company's website on Saturday.
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned last week that health misinformation is "a serious threat to public health," and the administration directly called out social media giant Facebook for not doing enough to stop the spread of false information on its platform.
Earlier Saturday, a Facebook official, speaking anonymously to discuss conversations the company has had with the Biden administration, told CNN, "In private exchanges the Surgeon General has praised our work, including our efforts to inform people about Covid-19. They knew what they were doing. The White House is looking for scapegoats for missing their vaccine goals."
Meetings between the Biden administration and Facebook in recent weeks have been "tense," a source familiar with the conversations told CNN last week.
The source said at the time that Biden officials who had taken concerns about vaccine misinformation to Facebook had concluded that the company was either not "taking this very seriously, or they are hiding something," due to what they view as Facebook's unwillingness to tackle vaccine misinformation.
Facebook Responds After Joe Biden Blames Platform Over Spread Of Vaccine Misinformation: “They’re Killing People”
President Joe Biden lashed out at social media platforms as the conduits for the spread of misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines, reflecting the concern that the White House has over the spread of the Delta variant among the unvaccinated.
As Biden left for Camp David on Friday, NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked Biden, “On the topic of disinformation, what’s your message to platforms like Facebook?”
“They’re killing people,” Biden said. “Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and they’re killing people.”
Facebook has defended its actions to root out disinformation on their platform, but the White House has called for the company to take greater steps.
In response to Biden’s comment, Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever said in a statement, “We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts. 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. 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.”
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On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that, among other things, they have had discussions with Facebook and are flagging problematic posts that spread disinformation.
She also said that they have proposed a “robust enforcement strategy that bridges their properties and provides transparency about the rules.”
“There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” Psaki said. “All of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms, including Facebook — ones that Facebook owns.”
The citing of 12 people appeared to be a reference to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which identified a group that included Joseph Mercola, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Ty and Charlene Bollinger.
But Psaki’s remarks drew a furor among figures on the right, who claimed that the White House was pressuring Facebook to censor content.
At the White House press briefing on Friday, Psaki continued the criticism of social media platforms, and called for greater transparency. She suggested that “you shouldn’t be banned from one platform and not others for providing misinformation out there.”
Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy asked Psaki, “How long has the administration been spying on people’s Facebook profiles, looking for vaccine misinformation?”
Psaki responded, “Well, that was quite a loaded and inaccurate question. … As you know we are in regular touch with a range of media outlets as we are in regular touch with social media platforms. This is publicly open information, people sharing information online, just as you all reporting information on your news stations.”
Doocy then asked whether the 12 people “you have on a list, do they know that the Surgeon General’s office is going through their profile.”
Psaki said that she was “happy to get you the citation of where that comes from. There is no secret list. I will tell you that these are people that are sharing information on public platforms on Facebook…Our biggest concern here, and frankly I think it should be your biggest concern, is the number of people who are dying around the country because they are getting misinformation that is leading them to not take a vaccine. Young people, old people, kids, children. A lot of them are being impacted by misinformation.”
The war over misinformation heats up as Covid case counts rise
As the coronavirus mounts a fresh US assault, it is again tearing at the nation's political divides in a way that multiplies its own impact and makes clear in a supposed summer of freedom that the battle against the virus is far from over.
President Joe Biden is locked in a showdown with Facebook over vaccine misinformation. His predecessor, Donald Trump, is now weighing in, linking his Big Lie over election fraud to Biden's management of the Covid-19 crisis in a way that could brew even more of the vaccine hesitancy that is causing thousands of Americans to become infected.
Conservative pundits, would-be presidential candidates and Trump proteges have already exploited skepticism of vaccines for political gain. And new fears that a return to masks and physical distancing might be necessary in Covid hot zones, where many people have refused vaccines, are reigniting partisan fault lines. The rising political discord threatens not only to tarnish and reverse Biden's early success in rolling out vaccines and tamping down the virus -- only two weeks after the President declared partial independence from Covid-19. It could present the White House with severe challenges in the event of a full-scale next wave of infections and deaths in the coming weeks.
Even if many of the people getting sick are anti-vaccine Republicans who are not his voters anyway, any reimposed restrictions and business closures could interrupt the economic recovery that the President is relying on to boost Democrats in next year's midterm elections. The Dow was down more than 700 points Monday morning over virus concerns.
Rampant infection rates would also threaten children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated — and raise the prospect of disastrous new disruptions to schooling for a generation whose education has been irreparably interrupted. And the pernicious nature of the more infectious Delta variant is a warning of the possibility that dangerous mutations of the virus are more likely when it is widespread. So while vaccine skeptics act on the basis of individual rights, their decisions could end up affecting every American, especially if a variant emerges that is resistant to vaccines.
Rising cases in the United States come at what looks like a grim moment in the exhausting fight against the pandemic across the globe. All remaining Covid-19 restrictions are expected to be lifted in England on Monday — despite soaring infections. The government in London hopes it has broken the link between infections and hospitalizations and deaths as a result of a successful vaccine effort. In Tokyo, public opposition to the Olympic Games, which start on Friday, has been exacerbated by cases identified among a number of athletes. Much of the developing world, meanwhile, remains highly vulnerable due to a lack of vaccines.
Misinformation 'costs lives'
The Biden administration, conscious of the public health and political risks at play, has taken aim at social media companies. US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, defended Biden, who bluntly said on Friday that social media networks were "killing people" by allowing vaccine misinformation to spread on their platforms. Murthy said that while Big Tech had made some efforts, the administration had also made clear to them that "it's not enough."
"We know that health misinformation harms people's health. It costs them their lives," Murthy told CNN's Dana Bash.
Facebook reacted furiously to Biden's call out, which possibly showed frustration on the part of the President that a significant minority of the population refuses to protect themselves with free, safe and effective vaccines.
"President Biden's goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed," Guy Rose, Facebook's vice president of integrity, wrote in a post on the company's website Saturday.
He accused Biden of blaming a handful of social media networks at a time when Covid-19 cases are rising. This White House has tried to not politicize the pandemic on the grounds that doing so could worsen vaccine hesitancy. But its decision to send teams into hard-hit states to push lifesaving inoculations spurred conservative outrage and false claims that the government was trying to force people to take vaccinations against their will.
Trump, who consistently put his own political goals ahead of properly managing the crisis when he was president, weighed into the issue on Sunday, with an attack on Biden likely to incite his supporters and conservative media propagandists to follow suit.
"People are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don't trust his Administration, they don't trust the Election results, and they certainly don't trust the Fake News," Trump said in a statement.
The former President frequently lauds his own administration for the genuinely impressive feat of partnering with the private sector to produce Covid-19 vaccines in record time. But he spends far less time trying to convince his supporters to get vaccinated in a way that might help end the pandemic.
One of the senior architects of the Trump administration's erratic anti-Covid effort, former Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, has in recent days been warning that a return to masking in some areas might be necessary. He said that he now regrets advice that he and the government's top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, gave early in the pandemic that masks were not necessary.
The guidance was later superseded by evidence that masks could help prevent infections.
"I'm worried the CDC also made a similarly premature, misinterpreted, yet still harmful call on masking in the face of (the) delta variant," Adams tweeted.
But speaking on "State of the Union," Murthy said US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that told fully vaccinated Americans they did not need to wear masks or socially distance was meant to give flexibility to people in regions with low Covid-19 cases.
"When you see places like L.A. County and other parts of the country, where you see counties making decisions about masks that may be different from other counties, that's OK," Murthy said. "They're doing that based on what's happening in their communities, based on vaccination rates and case counts."
But the idea of masking being reintroduced drew a swift riposte from one visible Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, underscoring how the next phase of the pandemic is likely to be as politically contentious as previous ones.
"No. No. No. Hell NO," Cruz, who is accusing Biden of using Facebook, Google and Twitter to censor views that he doesn't agree with, wrote on Twitter in response to the Adams tweet.
US Surgeon General: 'I am worried'
The effects of misinformation are increasingly apparent. Murthy painted a grave picture of what may lie in store in the US, after weeks of positive news on vaccines and a return of something like normal life was undermined by the spread of the Delta variant.
"I am worried about what is to come, because we are seeing increasing cases, among the unvaccinated in particular," Murthy told Bash.
"And while, if you are vaccinated, you are very well protected against hospitalization and death, unfortunately, that is not true if you are not vaccinated."
New Covid-19 cases are rising in 50 states, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The evolution of the virus means it is now attacking younger people. Covid wards are being reopened in many hotspots. New infections are soaring in states as far apart as California and Louisiana. Almost all of the serious illness and deaths are among the unvaccinated, making it all the more important that the slowed inoculation effort picks up pace.
Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that there is now "an epidemic of the unvaccinated."
"Most people will either get vaccinated or have been previously infected, or they will get this Delta variant," Gottlieb said, laying out a daunting scenario, and adding that the number of new cases of the disease is likely being undercounted because of the lack of testing.
The hope will be that given the fact that 48.6% of Americans are now fully vaccinated, the previous waves of deaths in the pandemic can be avoided. Twenty states — most of them run by Democrats -- have fully vaccinated more than 50% of their population. But many others, especially in the conservative south, have yet to fully vaccinate even 40%, meaning the pool of potential victims of the Delta variant remains significant.
The daily average of new infections is now back up at more than 39,000 per day, after bottoming out at around 8,000 nearly a month ago. Deaths have started to tick up as well but are usually a few weeks behind infection spurts.
Joe Biden takes on inflation concerns as domestic agenda hangs in the balance: 'These disruptions are temporary'
President Joe Biden on Monday directly addressed concerns that his sweeping economic agenda will serve as an accelerant to inflation amid growing concern about price hikes across the economic spectrum.
"We also know that as our economy has come roaring back, we've seen some price increases. Some folks have raised worries that could be a sign of persistent inflation. But that's not our view," Biden said, speaking from the White House.
The President said his administration was doing everything it can to address price increases and assured Americans the disruptions were temporary.
"Reality is you can't flip the global economic light back on and not expect this to happen. As demand returns, there's going to be global supply chain challenges," Biden said. He pointed to high car prices and supply chain issues with semiconductors, calling it a "real challenge."
The President said: "I want to be clear: My administration understands that if we were to experience unchecked inflation over the long term, that would pose a real challenge to our economy. So while we're confident that isn't what we're seeing today, we're going to remain vigilant about any response that is needed."
Biden continued to push for his infrastructure proposals, arguing the investments would help drive down prices for Americans and help the US economy bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.
The comments come at a critical time as lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to hammer out details of his two plans -- one focused on "hard" infrastructure like roads and bridges and another focused on what Biden calls "human infrastructure," which includes paid family leave, education and child care.
The President said the US' economic recovery hinges on getting the coronavirus pandemic under control and urged those who have not been vaccinated to get the shot.
"Please get vaccinated. Get vaccinated now. It works. It's safe. It's free. It's convenient. You know, this virus doesn't have to hold you back any longer. It doesn't have to hold our economy back any longer," Biden said.
The President said his critics -- namely former President Donald Trump, whose name he did not say but whom he alluded to during his remarks -- predicted that his presidency would "bring the end to capitalism," adding: "I never understood that one."
"It turns out capitalism is alive and very well. We're making serious progress to ensure that it works the way it's supposed to work: For the good of the American people," Biden said.
The President also touted his recent executive order aimed at promoting competition within the US economy, which he argued would also drive down prices. The wide-ranging order that he signed earlier this month aims to lower prescription drug prices, ban or limit non-compete agreements that the White House says impede economic mobility and crack down on Big Tech and internet service providers, among several other provisions.
Biden used his scheduled economic remarks to tout a recovery that has seen a burst in growth and more than 3 million new jobs since he took office, as the country continues to dig out of a pandemic-driven economic shock that pushed the US economy to the brink.
Across forecasts, the US is projected to hit growth rates that haven't been seen in decades -- a point the White House attributes to intertwined $1.9 trillion Covid relief law and a vaccine distribution effort that has led to the full vaccination of more than 160 million Americans.
But Biden also used the occasion to attempt to disarm a line of attack that has resonated in recent weeks as inflation has hit its highest point in 12 years and the US economy continues its emergence from what was essentially a total freeze as the pandemic swept the country.
Beyond the benefits the White House sees in the plans themselves from a direct policy perspective, Biden argued his proposals are designed to increase the economy's capacity and thus decrease prices over time, a view that has driven the perspective inside the White House that rising prices should have no effect in shifting their legislative course.
It is, in a sense, an effort to flip the GOP argument against his proposals on its head -- and directly counter an issue that Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue have acknowledged could threaten Biden's legislative goals.
For the President, the remarks come at a critical moment for his $4 trillion economic agenda on Capitol Hill. The bipartisan group instrumental in crafting the infrastructure framework has urgently worked over the last several days to reach a final agreement before a likely July 21 Senate procedural vote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has also set a deadline for his members to coalesce around a second, Democrat-only proposal that forms the backbone of the most aggressive spending and investment proposal in a generation.
But the legislative deadlines come as there is evidence of growing concern around the country about inflation and a clear effort by Republicans to use the price increases as a weapon to try and sink Biden's push for his agenda.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm, has launched efforts to target frontline Democrats on the issue on the political front, as senior Republicans have attacked the looming Democrat-only proposal as wholly unnecessary for an economy that has already been on the receiving end of trillions in emergency spending over the last 15 months.
"Our colleagues need to take this summer and think very carefully about what they are discussing," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said last week. "It would be hard to imagine a proposal less suited to the conditions of our country at this point."
It comes as economists in both parties have signaled the data is serving as a flashing warning sign about inflation, and as a Marist poll last month for NPR and the PBS NewsHour showed that inflation has surpassed wages and unemployment as the public's top concern about the US economy.
The White House economic team has been closely monitoring the numbers and officials say it still firmly believes the data is both transitory and more a result of the uneven emergence of the economy from a once in generation supply-side shock -- one that has created a series of bottlenecks in the supply chain and supply and demand mismatches that continue to linger.
"The overwhelming consensus is it's going to pop up a little bit and then go back down," Biden said last month.
Still, White House officials acknowledge that while they believe the increases are a short-term issue, it's still one that will likely be present for months, if not longer. The 5.4% increase in June's consumer price index -- the largest such year-over-year increase since 2008 -- only served to underscore that point.
It's a key reason for Biden's effort Monday to detail how, in the view of White House economic officials, his agenda would fit into that data if enacted.
The President laid out the view that the scale of the dual proposals -- nearly $600 billion new infrastructure spending and a nascent $3.5 trillion proposal designed to include sweeping investments in education, home care and paid leave -- would serve to create an environment to keep prices low and stable.
Biden described the investments as longer term and crafted to enable a combination of more opportunities for Americans to enter the labor force, which would in turn increase the supply of goods, all as it bolsters the resiliency of supply chains in a concerted effort to reduce production costs and the ability to bring goods to market.