Pressure On Facebook And White House For Greater Censorship Came From News Media
As the government’s Covid vaccination campaign flagged in 2021, New York Times and others ramped up demands for more censorship
Yesterday Public reported for the first time that Facebook censored content at the request of the White House in order to guarantee White House support in a $1.2 billion battle with the European Union over data privacy.
It is a significant discovery because it points to a major and additional point of financial leverage that the US government used to coerce censorship, in addition to widely discussed Section 230 liability protections, which President Biden, directly and indirectly, threatened — if Facebook refused its demands to censor.
But it all raises a question: why was the Biden White House so determined to censor Facebook in the first place?
Until the Facebook Files, the answer had been that they wanted people to take the vaccine. The White House believed all the anti-vaccine information on Facebook was contributing to “vaccine hesitancy.”
But now, the Facebook Files reveal that Facebook executives knew censoring disfavored vaccine views would backfire and explained to White House officials that censoring such views would violate established norms around freedom of speech. But the White House demanded more censorship, anyway.
In internal emails, Rosa Birch, Facebook’s Director of Strategic Response, argued that vaccine censorship would “1/ prevent hesitant people from talking through their concerns online and 2/reinforce the notion that there’s a cover-up.”
Birch stressed that a large and strong body of research showed the importance of “open dialogue,” access to information, and creating “an open and safe space for people to have vaccine-related conversations.”
Birch worried that censorship might “risk pushing [the vaccine hesitant] further toward hesitancy by suppressing their speech and making them feel marginalized by large institutions.”
The White House rejected Birch’s evidence-based case against censorship.
“We are facing continued pressure from external stakeholders, including the white house and the press, to remove more COVID-19 vaccine-discouraging content,” Birch wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in an April 2021 email.
Facebook executive Nick Clegg initially attempted to defend his staff. “I countered that removing content like that would represent a significant incursion into traditional boundaries of free expression in the US,” wrote Clegg.
But he eventually caved in. “Given what is at stake here,” he wrote, “it would also be a good idea if we could regroup to take stock of where we are in our relations with the WH [White House], and our internal methods too.”
And so, in direct response to White House pressure, Birch put forward three stronger enforcement options for the demotion or deletion of “vaccine discouraging content.” Listing out the pros and cons of each option, Birch explicitly named satisfying “critics” as a factor in determining which course of action to take.
The White House was warned that censoring “vaccine hesitancy” was not the right approach. Why, then, did it push for it anyway?
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