The Media Today

Facebook, Fox, and what ‘killing people’ means in a pandemic

July 21, 2021

Last Thursday, with confirmed cases of COVID-19 again rising across the US, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, issued his first advisory since the Biden administration took office: health mis- and disinformation, he said, has prolonged the pandemic, not least by exposing Americans to anti-vax propaganda, and social-media companies should do more to stamp it out. On Friday, Biden himself put a finer point on things. Asked by an NBC reporter for his message to platforms, particularly Facebook, Biden replied, “They’re killing people,” then added, “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated.” His bluntness drove a media frenzy and infuriated Facebook, which hit back—claiming that it is actually “helping save lives, period,” by putting good vaccine information in front of billions of users, and accusing Biden of making the company a “scapegoat” for his administration’s missed vaccination targets. On Monday, Biden was asked about his remark, and said this time that Facebook “isn’t killing people”; rather, a small but prolific number of users are. Some news outlets reported that Biden had “clarified” his earlier comment. Others saw a “softening,” a “walk back,” even a “U-turn.”

Biden’s intervention—along with rising cases and plummeting vaccination rates—have reignited urgent media conversations about vaccine hesitancy, whose fault it is, and to what extent. Facebook has been central to this conversation, with observers debating the proper balance between the good messaging it has instigated and the bad messaging it has allowed on its platform. Right-wing media outlets—and, given its huge reach, Fox News, in particular—have also been central, with some commentators arguing that they deserve a greater share of the blame for sowing mistrust of the vaccines and Biden’s efforts to distribute them. (“Who’s winning the war between Biden and Facebook?” a headline in Wired asked. “Fox News.”) On Sunday, CNN’s Dana Bash asked Murthy whether Fox is also “killing people”; Murthy replied that the general cost of misinformation “can be measured in lives lost,” but declined to be more specific. Oliver Darcy, a CNN media reporter, called this a “dodge” that reflected poorly on the administration’s priorities: “misinformation on Fox is distributed intentionally, while Facebook is at least putting some effort to combatting it.” Yesterday, Darcy’s colleagues Kaitlan Collins and Brian Stelter reported, citing anonymous official sources, that the White House has sought to engage Fox, via regular, “high level” discussions about its coverage. The White House, however, disputed the “high level” characterization, and Fox dismissed CNN’s reporting. (“We had one routine briefing with the White House in early May on vaccination rates,” the network said, “and our DC bureau personnel are regularly in touch with them on a variety of issues.”)

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Talks or none, many media observers have this week noticed an apparent shift in Fox’s coverage of COVID vaccines. On Monday, the network ran on-screen banners advertising official vaccine resources, and Sean Hannity urged his viewers to take the pandemic seriously; on Tuesday, Steve Doocy, of Fox & Friends, said that the vaccine “will save your life.” These efforts have met, in more liberal quarters, with relief, and even some praise. It’s not clear, however, that they really represent any sea change. Hannity and Doocy have both endorsed vaccines before; in February, the latter appeared, alongside several other Fox hosts, in a vaccine PSA. And, more pertinently, hosts who have consistently cast doubt on the vaccines have continued to do so: following Hannity on Monday, for instance, Laura Ingraham accused Democrats of trying to cancel “inconvenient opinions regarding their Covid response,” and brought on a guest who called the idea that there is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” a “lie.” Some of this week’s Fox-has-changed commentary reminded me of the post-election period, when supposed instances of hosts turning on Trump belied a more sordid reality. With vaccines, as with Trump’s election lies, low expectations can dilute our standards of accountability.

Many commentators have sought, in recent days, to push the conversation about vaccine hesitancy beyond easy narratives of discrete blame. Renée DiResta, a researcher at Stanford’s Internet Observatory, noted on MSNBC last night that “it’s really difficult to differentiate between media and social media at this point,” since major outlets all now use social platforms to reach audiences. “We’re kind of perpetuating this idea that the two ecosystems are wholly different,” DiResta said. “That’s not exactly right.” Others have widened the frame still further, beyond these ecosystems: Dr. Peter Hotez, a virology expert at Baylor, wrote for the Daily Beast that Biden’s focus on social media is insufficient, and that he must instead fight the misinformation Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon, apparently) of anti-vax media and political punditry, anti-science NGOs, and malicious state actors; many experts have also noted the range of socioeconomic factors that drive different types of vaccine hesitancy. Amid all this, some columnists have pushed back, specifically, on Biden’s claim that Facebook is “killing people.” Farhad Manjoo, of the New York Times, accused Biden of “rhetorical shoddiness” that 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, America would be healed again.” Charlie Warzel wrote in his newsletter that Biden teed up “an unproductive, false binary of a conversation on a complex topic that deserves far more nuance.”

There’s a lot to agree with here: vaccine hesitancy has a variety of causes, and our information ecosystem is a messy place where the lines blur between individual bad actors and their poison pools. Importantly, though, none of this diminishes the moral responsibility of individual bad actors—and zero tolerance for their individually bad actions remains the proper standard. Biden’s “killing people” remark captured our attention because it sounded so inflammatory; indeed, it sounds like the worst thing you can accuse someone of doing. But, in the context of a global pandemic, the meaning of such a remark has changed: the whole world is now itself a messy ecosystem of cause and effect, where everyone’s routine decisions, passive or active, can put others at potentially mortal risk. This isn’t to drain Biden’s words of their moral weight; it’s to recognize that, as well as being a sharp rebuke, it is literally true to say that anything that contributes to vaccine hesitancy is “killing people.” Biden must have known how his words would land; it seems possible, to me, that he wanted to center Facebook in a weekend media storm, then assert some plausible deniability. But his “killing people” remark was not inherently lacking in nuance—it was entirely compatible with it. And sections of the media bear responsibility for hyping the political attack without teasing those nuances out.

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Nor did Biden really do a “U-turn” on Facebook, as much coverage suggested. Facebook both is and isn’t killing people—for the reasons I outlined above, but also because we can define “Facebook” in different ways: it’s both a corporate entity run by people and a universe within which misinformation thrives, with the former responsible for the latter. Similar is true of Fox: it’s run by people who say they support vaccines, and yet it lets vaccine doubt pollute its airwaves. The proportionalities of blame within and between such organizations are harder to calculate. These are important, because the media should be mindful of relative power. But analyzing them needn’t and shouldn’t serve to dull sharp moral statements like Biden’s. Every pointillist painting is built of tiny dots. Focusing on the dots can feel hopelessly small, and won’t in itself get shots in arms. But neither will losing them in the bigger picture.

Below, more on vaccines and misinformation:

  • Vaccine passports: Top Fox hosts haven’t just spread doubt about the vaccines; they have also taken aim at the idea of “vaccine passports” that might regulate access to public settings. (Tucker Carlson recently called them the medical equivalent of Jim Crow.) Ryan Grim reported on Hill TV this week, however, that despite this on-air rhetoric, Fox’s parent company has implemented something that looks very much like a vaccine passport at its offices. The company’s system “allows for employees to self-report to Fox the dates their shots were administered and which vaccines were used,” CNN’s Darcy wrote in a follow-up story. “Employees who report their status are allowed to bypass the otherwise required daily health screening.” (The system is voluntary for Fox staffers.)
  • Useful breakthroughs?: Amid concerns about rising case rates driven by the more contagious Delta variant, Axios reports that many lawmakers, staffers, and journalists working in Congress have started wearing masks again, and Congressional leaders are considering reintroducing some COVID rules, despite high vaccination rates on the Hill. Axios also reported yesterday that a vaccinated White House staffer and aide to Nancy Pelosi have tested positive for COVID; neither Biden nor Pelosi is known to have been exposed, and the staffers’ cases are mild, but questions about them still ate up a large part of yesterday’s White House briefing. Some observers argue that cases among vaccinated people should not be treated as news stories in and of themselves. “The Every! Breakthrough! Infection! Is! Big! News! news cycle is getting pretty annoying,” Nate Silver tweeted yesterday, “and is probably going to give vaccinated people a lot of unnecessary anxiety about Delta while also providing kindling to anti-vaxxers.”
  • Mistrust: Sara Fischer reports, also for Axios, on a new study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which found that people who follow conservative news outlets are less likely to have confidence in public health institutions and experts, such as the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, and more likely to believe vaccine misinformation. “When you begin to reduce trust in experts and agencies telling you that vaccines are safe, you’re creating all kinds of susceptibilities that can be exploited for partisan gain,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the APPC’s director, said.
  • Delayed response: On Monday, YouTube—which, as Warzel and others have noted, often attracts less scrutiny than Facebook—pledged to do more to combat health misinformation on its platform; it plans to label more videos containing junk, and highlight more authoritative information, including “information panels” with sources approved by the National Academy of Medicine. As CNBC’s Jennifer Elias writes, however, “the tool’s effectiveness will be based on the viewers’ willingness to click on it,” and “experts have repeatedly doubted similar tools the company added to election videos last year.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.