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Inside the White House-Facebook rift over vaccine misinformation

WASHINGTON — In March, Andy Slavitt, then a top pandemic adviser for President Biden, called Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, and delivered an ominous warning.

For many weeks, Slavitt and other White House officials had been meeting with Facebook to urge the company to stop the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. Many Americans who refused to get vaccinated had cited false stories they read on Facebook, including theories that the shots could lead to infertility, stillborn babies, and autism. Slavitt and other officials felt that executives were deflecting blame and resisting requests for information.

“In eight weeks’ time,” Slavitt told Clegg, “Facebook will be the No. 1 story of the pandemic.”

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Slavitt’s prediction was not far off. Roughly three months later, with cases from the delta variant surging, Biden said Facebook was “killing people” — a comment that put the social network in the center of the public discussion about the virus.

Biden’s comment, which he later walked back slightly, was the culmination of increasingly combative meetings with the company about the spread of misinformation. Interviews with administration officials, Facebook employees, and other people with knowledge of the internal discussions revealed new details about who took part in the talks and the issues that fed the frustrations between the White House and the Silicon Valley titan.

The meetings have involved the top ranks on both sides, according to the people, including those close to Facebook and those with ties to the administration, who would only speak anonymously because the conversations were private.

In March, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, called Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, and discussed health misinformation. The White House grew so frustrated by Facebook’s answers in the internal meetings that at one point it demanded to hear from the data scientists at the company instead of lobbyists. And the nation’s top doctor presented the social media representatives with anecdotes from doctors and nurses who had interacted with COVID-19 patients who believed incorrect information.

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Talks between the White House and Facebook continue. But the rift has complicated an already tumultuous relationship just as Biden faces a setback on fighting the coronavirus. The White House missed its goal of having 70 percent of American adults with at least one vaccination shot by July 4, and the highly contagious delta variant has fueled a rise in cases since then. The United States averaged more than 110,000 new daily cases in the past week, up from about 13,000 a month ago. In response, the administration has reversed some public health advice, leaving many Americans perplexed over requirements like wearing masks.

The vast majority of the new cases are among unvaccinated people. On Thursday, the White House urged pediatricians to incorporate vaccination into back-to-school sports physicals and encouraged schools to host their own vaccination clinics. But close collaboration with Facebook, by far the largest social network in the country, could be crucial to overcoming the widespread vaccine hesitancy and ultimately the pandemic.

“We’ve engaged with Facebook since the transition on this issue,” said Mike Gwin, a White House spokesman, “and we’ve made clear to them when they haven’t lived up to our, or their own, standards and have actively elevated content on their platforms that misleads the American people.”

Facebook has pushed back strongly against the White House’s criticism, accusing the administration in public of scapegoating the company for the administration’s failure to reach its vaccination goals. Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook, said the White House hadn’t given the company enough credit for promoting the vaccine. He said the social network had been working with the White House for “many months” to get people vaccinated, introducing features like prominent links to vaccine clinics.

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“We remove COVID-related content that breaks our rules and continue to link to authoritative health information on all COVID-related posts,” Stone said.

The White House believes that Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, emerged as particularly problematic, some people close to the administration said. Human rights advocates and election officials have had similar complaints about the company’s handling of misinformation in recent years, saying executives point to steps taken to share factual information but avoid responsibility for the falsehoods spread widely on its services.

In one meeting this spring, Murthy presented anecdotes from nurses and doctors. The health workers said COVID-19 patients had been afraid to take the vaccine because of false information they read on Facebook. Last month, Murthy took his criticisms public, stating in his first formal advisory to the country that misinformation was “an urgent threat to public health.”