Late last week US President Joe Biden achieved something I’d thought impossible: He got me to feel bad for Mark Zuckerberg.
Sure, it was only a little bad, but that’s no small feat. As I spent the weekend brushing up on funereal dirges to play on my tiny violin, I couldn’t help but marvel at the president’s rhetorical shoddiness regarding Facebook’s role in Americans’ refusal to get vaccinated, the most important obstacle to the nation’s full recovery from the pandemic.
By accusing Facebook and other social media companies of “killing people” through what Biden said was their lax policing of vaccine misinformation, the president reduced the complex scourge of runaway vaccine hesitancy into a cartoonishly simple matter of product design: If only Facebook would hit its Quit Killing People button, the world would be healed again.
Polls show that about a fifth of Americans refuse to get a COVID vaccine, and the divide is highly partisan.Credit:AP
Worse, Biden fed into the bogus right-wing notion that Facebook and other social media giants now operate as media arms of the Democratic Party, a belief that will only undermine whatever greater action against vaccine nonsense that the companies might take. If Facebook decides tomorrow to ban all criticism of the COVID-19 vaccines, its actions will be instantly undermined as Big Tech censoring “the truth” to satisfy the radical left or some other such reflexive dismissal.
On cue, The Wall Street Journal editorial board declared on Monday that Biden was only criticising Facebook because “Facebook has bent to politicians far too much, inviting this latest assault.”
Finally, in the blundering way he took on the tech giants, Biden illustrated the profound challenges that bedevil calls for stricter regulation of social media. Facebook and Twitter, like The New York Times and Fox News, enjoy a right protected by the First Amendment to post or to amplify — or to not post or not amplify — just about any legal content they care to.
The president reduced the complex scourge of runaway vaccine hesitancy into a cartoonishly simple matter of product design: If only Facebook would hit its Quit Killing People button, the world would be healed again.
In a free society, a president accusing a media company — even one whose chief executive insists it’s not a media company — of mass death simply for disseminating legal content should make us all a little uncomfortable. Sure, Facebook has a right to kick you off its site for lying about vaccines — but if the president fiercely extols Facebook to do so, the argument that you’re being censored by the government becomes a lot more plausible.
You might defend Biden’s passion here on the grounds of public health. But it’s probably past the point of utility. Researchers who study vaccine hesitancy say that social networks play a huge role in the spread of dangerous lies about vaccines. Perhaps there was a time, months or years ago, when Facebook and other social media companies had the power to stop the anti-vaccine movement from swallowing up so many people.