Facebook pushes back against Biden comments about vaccinations

Social network's remarks come after the president says tech companies are 'killing people' by allowing misinformation to spread.

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US President Joe Biden stops to take a question from NBC correspondent Peter Alexander while departing the White House on July 16.

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Facebook and the Biden administration engaged in an increasingly heated war of words over the weekend after President Joe Biden said Friday that tech platforms like the social media giant are "killing people" by allowing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines to spread online. 

"They're killing people," Biden said Friday on the lawn of the White House. "The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated."

A Facebook spokesman pushed back against Biden's accusations, noting the company directed more than 2 billion people to reliable information about COVID-19 and vaccines. Facebook has an online hub for COVID-19 information as part of an effort to steer people toward authoritative sources. More than 3.3 million Americans have also used Facebook's vaccine finder tool, he said.

"We will not be distracted by accusations which aren't supported by the facts," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. "The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period."

In a blog post on Saturday, Facebook called on the administration to stop "finger-pointing" and detailed its efforts to get people vaccinated and reduce misinformation about the vaccines.

"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 US has increased."

The comments come as tension between Washington and Facebook grow as politicians and regulators try to rein in the power of the world largest's tech companies. Biden had been critical of Facebook before he won the US presidency, telling The New York Times in January 2020 he wasn't a "fan" of Facebook or CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Biden's most recent remarks came a day after US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory saying health misinformation is an "urgent threat" to the public amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Though social networks such as Facebook say they've stepped up efforts to curb the spread of health misinformation, the spread of this type of content still continues to be a problem.

The advisory, issued Thursday, says misinformation has hampered US response to the pandemic and prevented Americans from getting vaccinated. It calls on social media companies, as well as individuals, to help fight health misinformation. 

"As surgeon general, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk," Murthy said in a release. "From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread on their platforms, to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation, tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation."

During an appearance Sunday on CNN, Murthy laid much of the blame for misinformation on social networks.

"These platforms have to recognize they've played a major role in the increase in speed and scale with which misinformation is spreading," Murthy said.

Murthy also spoke about the advisory during a briefing at the White House on Thursday. During that briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there are about a dozen people creating 65% of the vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. That stat appears to come from a March report published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate

Psaki also specifically called out Facebook on Thursday, saying the administration is flagging problematic posts to the social media giant. 

"There are about 12 people who are producing 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms, all of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms that Facebook owns," Psaki said.

Facebook said it's removed more than a dozen pages, groups and accounts from some of the people Psaki mentioned in the press briefing. The social network said it's also taken down more than 18 million pieces of COVID-19 misinformation.

"We've partnered with government experts, health authorities and researchers to take aggressive action against misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to protect public health," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement.