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The Daily 202: Nearly 30 groups urge Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to take down vaccine disinformation
Jul 19, 2021 · 10 min
with Mariana AlfaroWelcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1980, the Moscow Summer Olympics began — but U.S. athletes were abs ...
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The Daily 202: Nearly 30 groups urge Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to take down vaccine disinformation

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1980, the Moscow Summer Olympics began — but U.S. athletes were absent because of an official boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In the latest salvo of the social media wars, a coalition of liberal individuals and groups has written to Facebook and Twitter urging them to ban 12 people who, one study found, spread the bulk of disinformation about coronavirus vaccines. 

“People are quite literally dying because disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine, and public health leaders is spreading,” they wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The Daily 202 obtained an advance copy of the letter.

“Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have served as the sites for the spread of hateful speech and dangerous disinformation,” the letter said. “Now, as we are moving forward with reopening our country, it's critical that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter take immediate action to protect platform users by deplatforming the Disinfo Dozen and taking meaningful steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 disinformation.” 

Among the better-known signatories were UltraViolet, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Alianza for Progress, GLAAD, Media Matters for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Women’s March.

The White House said last week that the 12 individuals cited in the letter spread 65 percent of the anti-vaccine disinformation zipping around social media platforms, even as coronavirus cases have surged and deaths have risen, overwhelming among unvaccinated Americans. 

The letter came amid an escalating and increasingly acrimonious pressure campaign on social media titans by President Biden, who bluntly accused the tech firms of “killing people” by doing too little to take down vaccine disinformation. 

On Sunday, the White House declined to answer questions from The Daily 202 about what criteria it uses to decide whether a post amounts to disinformation versus overheated rhetoric or exaggeration relatively common to politics. 

Asked about the process for reporting suspected disinformation to social media companies, a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the administration has occasionally asked social media platforms about specific misleading viral posts that it thought might violate the tech firms’ own policies.  

At the New York Times, Cecilia Kang took stock Sunday of the back-and-forth between Biden and the tech companies that run the most wide-reaching social media: 

“On Sunday, the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, reiterated warnings that false stories about the vaccines had become a dangerous health hazard. ‘These platforms have to recognize they’ve played a major role in the increase in speed and scale with which misinformation is spreading,’ Mr. Murthy said Sunday on CNN. 

In  a blog post  on Saturday, Facebook called on the administration to stop ‘finger-pointing’ and laid out what it had done to encourage users to get vaccinated. The social network also detailed how it had clamped down on lies about the vaccines, which officials have said led people to refuse to be vaccinated. 

‘The Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,’ Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, said in the post. ‘The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the U.S. has increased.’ 

Mr. Rosen added that the company’s data showed that 85 percent of its users in the United States had been or wanted to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While President Biden had set a goal of getting 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4, which the White House fell short of, ‘Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed,’ Mr. Rosen said.” 

My colleagues Amy B. Wang and Christopher Rowland reported yesterday that the Biden administration's warnings about disinformation “prompted Facebook to hit back at the White House and accuse Murthy of praising them privately while publicly using them as a scapegoat for Biden’s missed vaccination goals. 

 Murthy defended the administration Sunday, saying he had also told Facebook officials they were not doing enough. 

‘What I have effectively said is, when we see steps that are good, that are being taken, we should acknowledge those. And there have been some positive steps taken by these technology companies,’ he said on CNN. ‘But what I have also said to them, publicly and privately, is that it’s not enough, that we’re still seeing a proliferation of misinformation online.’ ” 

It’s not clear what proportion of Americans still refusing to get the widely available, effective, and overwhelmingly safe vaccine is doing so because of online disinformation campaigns. 

But my colleagues Dan Diamond, Hannah Knowles, and Tyler Pager reported last week how parts of right-wing America have made a virtue out of resisting the vaccine — and encouraging supporters of former president Donald Trump to do so. 

“What began as ‘vaccine hesitancy’ has morphed into outright vaccine hostility, as conservatives increasingly attack the White House’s coronavirus message, mischaracterize its vaccination campaign and, more and more, vow to skip the shots altogether. 

The notion that the vaccine drive is pointless or harmful — or perhaps even a government plot — is increasingly an article of faith among supporters of former president Donald Trump, on a par with assertions that the last election was stolen and the assault on the U.S. Capitol was overblown.” 

As the Associated Press’ Jay Reeves noted this weekend: 

“U.S. cases of COVID-19 last week increased by 17,000 nationwide over a 14-day period for the first time since late fall, and an increase in death historically follows a spike in illness.” 

The U.S. and some allies accused China of hacking Microsoft and condoning other cyberattacks. “The United States, European Union, NATO and other world powers on Monday accused the Chinese government of a broad array of malicious cyber activities, blaming its Ministry of State Security and affiliated criminals for a sophisticated attack on Microsoft’s widely used email server software earlier this year,” John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima report. “The condemnations represent the first time NATO, a 30-nation alliance, has denounced alleged Chinese cyberattacks following the Biden administration’s pledge in June to rally U.S. allies against Beijing’s malign behavior. The number of nations involved amounts to the largest condemnation of China’s cyber aggressions to date, U.S. officials said. The joint statements stopped short, however, of punishing China for its alleged actions …

“This is the first time Washington and other U.S. allies have assigned blame for the Microsoft Exchange hack, which compromised more than 100,000 servers worldwide. Microsoft alleged in March that its Exchange servers were compromised by a Beijing-backed hacking group that exploited several previously unknown flaws in the software. … Merely affixing blame but failing to impose a consequence will not deter future activity, said some analysts.”

The Biden administration repatriated a detainee from Guantanamo Bay to Morocco, the first transfer of an inmate from the high-security prison since the Trump administration mostly halted the resettlements. “The transfer of detainee Abdul Latif Nasir leaves just 39 inmates at the facility, located on a military base on the eastern tip of Cuba, and provides the first concrete illustration of how the administration may attempt to finally shutter the prison,” Missy Ryan reports. 

A U.S. women’s gymnastics alternate tested positive for coronavirus in Tokyo, Emily Giambalvo reports. “Kara Eaker’s coach, Al Fong, told a television station in Des Moines that Eaker was the gymnast who tested positive. Eaker, an 18-year-old from Grain Valley, Mo., said last month that she had been vaccinated. ... The gymnast has moved to a hotel to isolate, the USOPC said in a statement. One additional [alternate] is considered a close contact, and she is quarantining in her room until she tests negative.” 

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