“All my research is on things that social media platforms can do to make things better,” said David Rand, a professor at MIT and one of the authors of the study testing the impact of Trump praising vaccines. “But I think TV and radio, particularly conservative TV and radio, are essentially getting a free pass right now, even though they’re doing amazing harm.”
The Biden administration’s criticism of Facebook is a double win for Fox News. Not only does it draw attention away from the network’s own culpability for the vaccination gap, but it feeds a potent right-wing narrative about government and Big Tech colluding to silence conservatives. “I just think that this kind of coordination between big government and the big monopoly corporation, boy, that is scary stuff. And it really is censorship,” Missouri senator Josh Hawley said Thursday on—where else?—Fox News. That sense of outrage easily sustained conservative media throughout the weekend, with both pundits and Republican lawmakers weighing in on, as Ted Cruz put it, “their willingness to trample on free speech, to trample on the Constitution, to use government power to silence you, everything we feared they might do.”
It’s easy to see why the White House would spend political capital beating up on Facebook rather than Fox News: Facebook might actually listen. Biden has no leverage over right-wing media. When a Fox News host questions the safety or wisdom of vaccination, it isn’t a lapse in enforcement; it’s tonight’s programming. Many people at Facebook, by contrast, would prefer not to be responsible for poisoning America’s public health information environment.
Which, according to Facebook, they aren’t. In a blog post last week, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, argued that Facebook has been a force for good when it comes to vaccinations. He noted that “more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about Covid-19 and vaccines on Facebook” since the start of the pandemic, while the company has “removed over 18 million instances of Covid-19 misinformation.” And, he claimed, Facebook has already complied with all eight of the surgeon general’s recommendations—which would include Murthy’s suggestion that companies “give researchers access to useful data to properly analyze the spread and impact of misinformation.”
In fact, Facebook notoriously does not provide access to the data needed to understand what’s happening on its platform. Notice, for example, that Rosen’s blog post doesn’t mention how many times users have seen unreliable information about Covid or vaccines. Facebook publicizes statistics about engagement with posts—likes, shares, and so on—but refuses to disclose data about “reach,” meaning how many people see a piece of content. Nor does it provide any concrete details about its efforts to reduce the spread of misinformation.
“The public has no idea what Facebook is or is not doing to combat vaccine misinformation, and doesn’t have any sense of how bad or not-bad the problem is,” said Rand, the MIT professor. “There’s lots of work being done within the company by lots of smart people to try to reduce the impact of misinformation, but they don’t really tell much about it.”
Rand said platforms like Facebook should partner with outside researchers on empirical studies about what does and doesn’t work to combat vaccine misinformation—and publicize the results. He noted that Facebook is sitting on enough data to measure how exposure to posts about vaccines affect real-world behaviors. “They’re doing randomized controlled trials on vaccine misinformation every day, they just don’t think of it that way,” he said.
The irony is that, by providing some insight into how it approaches the problem, Facebook seems to have wandered into the worst possible balance between transparency and secrecy. YouTube makes comparatively little information available to researchers, helping it fly under the political and regulatory radar despite its massive importance. Facebook, meanwhile, provides just enough data through CrowdTangle for researchers and reporters to bludgeon the company—but then conceals the evidence that it claims would vindicate it.