WASHINGTON — Facebook and the Biden administration engaged in an increasingly rancorous back and forth over the weekend after the administration denounced the social media giant for spreading misinformation about the covid-19 vaccines.
On Sunday, 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,” Murthy said Sunday on CNN.
In a blog post Saturday, Facebook told 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.”
Rosen added that the company’s data showed that 85% of its U.S. users had been or wanted to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While President Joe Biden had set a goal of getting 70% of Americans vaccinated by July 4, which the White House fell short of, “Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed,” Rosen said.
Facebook’s response came after a forceful condemnation of the company by Biden. When asked Friday about the role of social media in influencing vaccinations, Biden said the platforms were “killing people.”
The White House declined to comment on Facebook’s blog post Saturday.
On Sunday morning, Murthy also responded to accusations by a Facebook official who spoke anonymously to CNN, saying the administration was “looking for scapegoats for missing their vaccine goals.”
The company official told CNN before Murthy’s appearance on the news network that in private conversations, Murthy has “praised our work” while publicly criticizing the company.
Murthy denied that.
“I’ve been very consistent in what I’ve said to the technology companies,” Murthy said on CNN. “When we see steps that are good, we should acknowledge those,” he said, adding: “But what I’ve also said is that it’s not enough. We are still seeing a proliferation of misinformation online.”
Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have long struggled with their role as platforms for speech while protecting their users from disinformation campaigns, like Russian efforts to influence presidential elections or false statements about the pandemic.
In recent months, Facebook has taken steps against anti-vaccination ads and misstatements about the vaccines. In October, it said it would no longer allow anti-vaccination ads on its platform. In February, the company went further and said it would remove posts with erroneous claims about vaccines, including assertions that vaccines cause autism or that it is safer for people to contract the coronavirus than to receive the vaccinations.
KLOBUCHAR: NEW STANDARDS
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said misinformation on social media about covid-19 vaccines adds urgency to her call to change liability standards for what is published on their platforms.
“There’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to monitor this better and take this crap off of their platforms,” she said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I really appreciate President Biden calling this out,” she said.
Klobuchar suggested using antitrust laws to “look back and see if they should divest assets so we can get true competition” with “dominant” social media platforms, she said Sunday.
Murthy said Sunday that he has been speaking with the platforms and will continue to ask them to take responsibility for the misinformation on the sites.
“Misinformation is still spreading like wildfire in our country, aided and abetted by technology platforms,” Murthy said on “Fox News Sunday.” He issued an advisory last week, calling attention to health misinformation that has led to avoidable illness and death.
WHAT’S TO COME?
Murthy also said Sunday that he’s concerned about what lies ahead as cases of covid-19 increase in every state, millions are unvaccinated and a highly contagious virus variant spreads rapidly.
“I am worried about what is to come because we are seeing increasing cases among the unvaccinated in particular. 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,” Murthy said on CNN.
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. Much of the worsening problem is being driven by the delta variant first identified in India, that has since hit the U.K. and other countries, Murthy said.
While U.S. case numbers and hospitalizations are still far below levels from the worst of the pandemic early this year, Murthy said the worsening situation shows the need to persuade more people to get vaccinated.
“It is our fastest, most effective way out of this pandemic,” he said.
About 186 million Americans have received at least one shot, but another 90 million eligible Americans haven’t. Officials are trying to overcome a refusal among some to get vaccinated, but it’s unclear how to do that. So, for the meantime at least, some places have reverted to health precautions that had been cast aside.
In Las Vegas, some resorts and casinos are again requiring employees to wear masks in response to a recommendation issued by health officials amid rising covid-19 case rates in Nevada; it ranks fifth among U.S. states for the most new cases per capita over the past two weeks.
But in Alabama, where covid-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled in a month and only about a third of the population is fully vaccinated, officials have refused to reinstitute statewide health rules or use gimmicks such as lotteries to boost immunizations.
“I think the best thing for us to do is just encourage everyone to use their common sense and practice personal responsibility and make themselves and their families safe,” Gov. Kay Ivey told reporters last week.
Cases also are on the rise in Springfield, Mo., where Mayor Ken McClure told CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” that false information about the pandemic was hampering the fight to get people vaccinated.
“I think we are seeing a lot spread through social media as people are talking about fears which they have, health-related fears, what it might do to them later on in their lives, what might be contained in the vaccinations,” he said.
Murthy said “not nearly enough” progress was being made in the fight against misinformation spread through social media about covid-19 and vaccines. Individuals, not just platforms such as Facebook, need to combat the problem, he said.
“Each of us has a decision that we make every time we post something on social media, and I’m asking people to pause and to see, is a source accurate? Is it coming from a scientifically credible authority? And if it’s not, or if you’re not sure, don’t share,” he said.
FLORIDA CRUISE SHIPS
Pandemic restrictions on Florida-based cruise ships will remain in place after a federal appeals court temporarily blocked a previous ruling that sided with a Florida lawsuit challenging the regulations.
The one-paragraph decision by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was filed at 11:50 p.m. Saturday, just minutes before a Tampa judge’s previous ruling on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions was set to take effect.
The judges’ issuance of a temporary stay keeps the CDC regulations regarding Florida-based cruise ships in place while the CDC appeals the June decision by U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.
The lawsuit, championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, claims that the CDC’s multiple-step process to allow cruising from Florida is overly burdensome, harming both a multibillion-dollar industry that provides some 159,000 jobs and revenue collected by the state.
A spokeswoman for DeSantis did not immediately respond Sunday. In a court filing, attorneys for Florida urged the 11th Circuit to reject the CDC request to keep its rules intact for now.
“The equities overwhelmingly favor allowing the cruise industry to enjoy its first summer season in two years while this Court sorts out the CDC’s contentions on appeal,” Florida’s lawyers argued.
The CDC, however, said keeping the rules in place would prevent future covid-19 outbreaks on ships that are vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of their close quarters and frequent stops at foreign ports.
“The undisputed evidence shows that unregulated cruise ship operations would exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, and that the harm to the public that would result from such operations cannot be undone,” the CDC said in a court filing.
The CDC first flatly halted cruise ships from sailing in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which had affected passengers and crew on numerous ships.
LOS ANGELES RESTRICTIONS
Los Angeles County residents are again required to wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status — a mandate that health officials hope will reverse the latest spikes in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The rule went into effect late Saturday for the nation’s largest county, home to 11 million people, where a sharp increase in covid-19 cases is led by the highly transmissible delta variant.
The vast majority of new cases are among unvaccinated people, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis said Sunday.
“I’m not pleased that we have to go back to using the masks in this matter but, nonetheless, it’s going to save lives. And right now that to me is what’s most important,” Solis said on ABC’s “This Week.”
California has seen a steady rise in virus cases since the state fully reopened its economy on June 15 and did away with capacity limits and social distancing.
San Francisco Bay Area health officials last week urged residents to again wear masks inside public buildings, offices or businesses regardless of whether they are vaccinated. The counties of San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa and Sonoma and the city of Berkeley stopped short of making face coverings a requirement.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Friday his deputies will not actively enforce the mandate, saying requiring vaccinated people to wear masks “is not backed by science and contradicts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”
Some vaccinated residents said it felt like they were being penalized despite doing the right thing.
“It feels like the the burden of the unvaccinated is being placed on the vaccinated,” Glendale resident Justin Sevakis told ABC7. “It’s like there are people that don’t have common sense and so therefore all of us have to pay for it. And it sucks. It feels like, you know, the teacher is punishing the whole class.”
Los Angeles County reported a caseload of 1,635 on Sunday — the 10th straight day with more than a thousand new cases. On June 15, when the state reopened, county health officials reported just 210 new cases.
More than 525 people were hospitalized with covid-19 in the county on Saturday, the highest number since April 14. There were four new virus-related deaths reported Sunday.
Information for this article was contributed by Cecilia Kang of The New York Times, by Yueqi Yang of Bloomberg News (TNS) and by Jay Reeves, Olga R. Rodriguez, Paul Davenport and Curt Anderson of The Associated Press.