WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Friday that social media companies are “killing people” by failing to police misinformation on their platforms about COVID-19 vaccines.
Watch Biden’s remarks in the player above.
Biden’s comments came a day after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared misinformation about the vaccines a threat to public health, and as U.S. officials advised that deaths and serious illness from the virus are almost entirely preventable because of the vaccines.
Biden, asked if he had a message for platforms like Facebook where false or misleading information about the coronavirus vaccines has spread, told reporters, “They’re killing people.”
“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” he said.
In a 22-page advisory, his first as Biden’s surgeon general, Murthy wrote that bogus claims have led people to reject vaccines and public health advice on masks and social distancing, undermining efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk.
“Misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Murthy said during remarks Thursday at the White House. “We must confront misinformation as a nation. Lives are depending on it.”
Given the role the internet plays in spreading health misinformation, Murthy said technology companies and social media platforms must make meaningful changes to their products and software to reduce the spread of false information while increasing access to authoritative, fact-based sources.
Too often, he said, the platforms are built in ways that encourage, not counter, the spread of misinformation.
“We are asking them to step up,” Murthy said. “We can’t wait longer for them to take aggressive action.”
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Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever responded: “We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts. The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet. More than 3.3 million Americans have also used our vaccine finder tool to find out where and how to get a vaccine. The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”
Twitter posted on its platform, “As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves around the world, we’ll continue to do our part to elevate authoritative health information.”
Two weeks after celebrating America’s near “independence” from the coronavirus, Biden is confronting the worrying reality of rising cases and deaths — and the limitations of his ability to combat the persistent vaccine hesitance responsible for the summer backslide.
Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. While the rates are still sharply down from their January highs, officials are concerned by the reversing trendlines and what they consider needless illness and death. And cases are expected to continue to rise in coming weeks.
While the national emergency may have faded, officials say the outbreak is now a more localized crisis in communities where not enough people have rolled up their sleeves.
“Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” Biden said Friday, echoing comments made earlier in the day by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rising numbers are being driven by large pockets of infection among the more than 90 million eligible Americans who have yet to get shots. Just four states with low vaccination rates made up 40 percent of new cases last week, and nearly half of them came from Florida alone.
However, there is little appetite in the White House for a return to broad mandates for masks or other measures, as 161 million Americans are already fully vaccinated.
Reflecting that mindset, Walensky said Friday that in low-vaccination areas with rising cases, “local policymakers might consider whether masking at that point would be something that would be helpful for their community.”
Some communities are acting. Los Angeles County on Thursday reinstituted its requirement that masks be worn in most indoor settings regardless of vaccination status, and health officials in Las Vegas recommended on Friday that workers and patrons in the tourism hotspot wear face coverings while inside.
With three highly effective vaccines authorized for use in the U.S., the Biden administration believes the most effective way to attack the virus is not trying to slow the spread with mass masking and such — something the U.S. showed it was not very good at last year — but to continue to press the importance of vaccinations.
It’s no easy fix. Many Americans remain resistant or unmotivated to get shots, despite months of often-creative efforts by federal and state officials and the private sector to spread information about vaccine safety and accessibility.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy added that while government can play an important role, “this has got to be an ‘all of the above’ strategy with everybody in,” including schools, employers, technology companies and individuals.
READ MORE: As 9 out of 10 U.S. children remain unvaccinated, Surgeon General pushes back against misinformation
In recent days, the administration has turned its focus to younger Americans. It enlisted pop star Olivia Rodrigo for a day-long White House visit Wednesday with Biden and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci that was heavily documented for social media. Younger people are at lowest risk of adverse outcomes from the virus and have proven to be among the least likely to get vaccinated.
But another huge group has proven to be an even more vexing challenge: Republicans. The White House has long acknowledged that, given rampant disinformation about the vaccines and the nation’s partisan divides, it would have little success convincing the GOP to get on board. Instead, administration officials have amped up criticism in recent days of public officials and social media companies for spreading or not condemning vaccine misinformation spreading among the GOP.
Efforts for comment from major platforms were not immediately successful.
The new government expression of frustration comes amid near disbelief that tens of millions of Americans continue to refuse to get vaccinated, needlessly extending the pandemic and costing lives, as health officials emphasize that nearly all serious cases and deaths are now preventable.
More than 99 percent of COVID-19 deaths and 97 percent of hospitalizations are among people who have not been vaccinated, according to the CDC.
The pandemic is now “one that predominantly threatens unvaccinated people,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday.
He said the Biden administration expects cases to increase in the weeks ahead because of spreading in communities with low vaccination rates But Zients added that there is a sign that the increased cases are driving more people in those communities to seek vaccination, reporting that “states with the highest case rates are seeing their vaccination rates go up” faster than the national average.