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, the 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,” Mr. Murthy said Sunday on CNN.
In a blog post on Saturday, Facebook called on 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.”
Mr. Rosen added that the company’s data showed that 85 percent of its users in the United States had been or wanted to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. While President Biden had set a goal of getting 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4, which the White House fell short of, “Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed,” Mr. Rosen said.
Facebook’s response followed a forceful condemnation of the company by Mr. Biden. When asked on Friday about the role of social media in influencing vaccinations, Mr. Biden declared in unusually strong language that the platforms were “killing people.”
“Look,” he added, “the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that — and they’re killing people.”
Other White House officials have also been increasingly vocal about how social media has amplified vaccine lies.
On Thursday, Mr. Murthy accused social media companies of not having done enough to stop the spread of dangerous health misinformation, calling it a national health crisis that had fostered vaccination hesitancy among Americans. On Friday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, also called out misinformation “that is leading to people not taking the vaccine, and people are dying as a result.” She said the White House had a responsibility to raise the issue.
The White House declined to comment on Facebook’s blog post on Saturday.
On Sunday morning, Mr. 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 ahead of Mr. Murthy’s appearance on the news network that in private conversations, Mr. Murthy has “praised our work” while publicly criticizing the company.
Mr. Murthy refuted the characterization.
“I’ve been very consistent in what I’ve said to the technology companies,” Mr. Murthy said on CNN on Sunday morning. “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.
But online misinformation about the vaccines has not been eradicated. Lies have spread that vaccines can alter DNA or that the vaccines don’t work.
On Saturday, Mr. Rosen said in the blog post that among Facebook’s American users, vaccine hesitancy had declined by 50 percent since April and vaccine acceptance had increased by 10 to 15 percentage points, or to over 80 percent from 70 percent.
“While social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic,” Mr. Rosen said. “And facts — not allegations — should help inform that effort.”
The White House’s frustration with Facebook has mounted over several months, people with knowledge of the matter have said. While the Biden administration asked Facebook to share information about the spread of misinformation on the social network, the company refused to cooperate, the people have said.
Brian Boland, a former Facebook vice president in charge of partnerships strategy, argued when he was at the company that it should publicly share as much information as possible about what happens on its platform. Asked on Sunday about the dispute with the White House on the CNN program “Reliable Sources,” he said, “Facebook has that data,” adding, “They look at it.” But, he asked: “Do they look at it the right way? Are they investing in the teams as fully as they should?”
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