As early as last autumn, public health experts and political leaders were sounding the alarm that conspiracist campaigns posed a dire threat to a future nationwide vaccination program—a threat that necessitated the appointment of a “disinformation czar” to counter anti-vaccine messaging.
The incoming Biden administration initially intended to heed those calls by placing a disinformation expert on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, according to multiple members of the transition team, but never followed through. Now, with anti-vaccine sentiment in conservative media and online undermining President Joe Biden’s vaccination push, the White House is attempting to make up for lost time in the war against coronavirus disinformation.
“President Biden promised to restore credibility to public health—it was literally his No. 1 pitch when he would talk about his plan to fight the pandemic,” a former Obama-era public health adviser told The Daily Beast. The White House’s initial instinct to avoid dignifying every dangerous or false statement by a prominent anti-vaccine activist or politician “was in the right place,” the former adviser said, “but it demonstrates an optimistic view of people’s susceptibility to dangerous bullshit that I don’t think has been proven correct.”
In December 2020, during the transition between administrations, a handful of Democratic members of Congress wrote to the incoming Biden administration warning that the prevalence of vaccine hesitancy and misinformation meant that the COVID-19 task force—soon to be rebranded as the “COVID-19 Response Team”—needed “a leading misinformation studies expert” on its staff to handle the issue.
“Understanding and addressing misinformation—and the wider phenomena of declining public trust in institutions, political polarization, networked social movements, and online information environments that create fertile grounds for the spread of falsehoods—is a critical part of our nation’s public health response,” the letter’s authors wrote. “The COVID-19 infodemic is about to dangerously intersect with a misinformation-laden anti-vaccine movement that has led to tragic consequences in our country.”
Lawmakers recommended Joan Donovan, a professor at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy who studies misinformation, as “ideally situated for the role.”
But Biden’s COVID-19 task force ultimately didn’t end up adding a staff member dedicated to studying health and vaccine misinformation—and now, they’re hustling to respond to a torrent of falsehoods about the virus and the vaccine that threatens to unravel the nation’s reopening. Vaccination rates are dropping around the country just as the highly infectious Delta variant becomes the dominant strain of the not-so-novel coronavirus in the United States—due in large part to open partisan hostility to vaccination drives.
The tipping point for the administration appears to be the hysteria in conservative media and among some Republican politicians about the administration’s plan to send doctors, faith leaders, and respected community figures “literally knocking on doors” to urge their neighbors to get vaccinated. Within hours of Biden’s announcement earlier this month that “we need to go community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood” in order to convince vaccine-hesitant adults, prominent conservatives across the country contended that the program was actually a nefarious plot to sic Big Government goons or antifa shock troops on unsuspecting Americans.
First-term congressman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) warned that the door-to-door campaign could be used to “go door-to-door and take your guns—they could go door-to-door and take your Bibles.” Charlie Kirk, co-founder of Turning Point USA, texted supporters that the president was “sending goons DOOR-TO-DOOR to make you take a Covid-19 vaccine,” which he called “medical raids.” Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, a Republican whose state is facing ventilator shortages and an adult vaccination rate below 50 percent, directed the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to reject any efforts by the federal government to send “government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination.”
The attacks, coming on the heels of a strategy that public health experts told The Daily Beast actually may not be aggressive enough on fighting anti-vaccine sentiment, triggered a conspicuous shift in strategy. Where the White House had once ignored or downplayed anti-vaccine arguments from the conservative fringe, it instead sent out the big guns to quell conspiracy theories that threatened to turn the door-to-door campaign into the pandemic equivalent of “death panels.”
“This is important work that is leading to more vaccinations,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said during a briefing by the White House’s COVID-19 task force. “For those individuals, organizations that are feeding misinformation and trying to mischaracterize this type of trusted-messenger work, I believe you are doing a disservice to the country and to the doctors, the faith leaders, community leaders, and others who are working to get people vaccinated, save lives, and help end this pandemic.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked to respond to an order by Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina directing state health officials to ban unsolicited door-to-door vaccination campaigns, said that the failure to spread accurate information about the pandemic was “literally killing people.”
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, even issued an advisory to health organizations, educational institutions, and social media companies urging them to prioritize preventing the spread of disinformation. Murthy pinned the rapid spread of health misinformation largely on social media companies, which he said have “designed product features, such as ‘Like’ buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally charged content, not accurate content.”
“Health misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19,” Murthy said during a White House press briefing last week. “What’s different now though is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading. Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users.”
Murthy’s comments presaged an aggressive White House campaign urging Facebook to take a firmer hand with anti-vaccine accounts and pages on its site, which has proliferated largely unchecked over the course of the pandemic.
“There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” Psaki said last Thursday, citing a statistic from the Center for Countering Digital Hate originally published in March. Biden went even further the next day, accusing platforms like Facebook of “killing people.” While the president later walked back that comment, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain had noted in a conversation with the New York Times earlier this month that Facebook is effectively ground zero for anti-vax hysteria.
“I’ve told Mark Zuckerberg directly that when we gather groups of people who are not vaccinated and we ask them, why aren’t you vaccinated, and they tell us things that are wrong, tell us things that are untrue,” Klain said. “We ask them where they’ve heard that, the most common answer is Facebook.”
The social media giant has denied that it has played the same role in spreading vaccine disinformation that it has in spreading white supremacy, Russian government propaganda, QAnon, and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, with Facebook vice president of integrity Guy Rosen declaring in a post entitled “Moving Past the Finger Pointing” that Facebook is not the reason that the country missed Biden’s goal of reaching 70 percent vaccination by Independence Day.
“We’ve already taken action on all eight of the Surgeon General’s recommendations on what tech companies can do to help,” Rosen wrote, “and we are continuing to work with health experts to update the list of false claims we remove from our platform.”
But users have become increasingly adept at skirting the line of Facebook’s rules about posting disinformation on its site, as The Daily Beast has reported, including by removing the word “vaccine” from pages that post anti-vaccine content in order to evade bans. Some anti-vaccine influencers won’t even use the word in videos, instead holding up their fingers in a V-shape to substitute for a word that might get their content flagged.
Donovan, the Harvard professor who was floated as a potential disinformation czar, told The Daily Beast that she understands—and even agrees with—the decision by the administration not to engage with every lunatic conspiracy floated on the internet.
“The standard advice about specific bits of misinformation are really about strategic silence,” Donovan said. “You only address when you hit a massive amount of people. If you look at what the COVID-19 task force has said, they never call attention to any particular piece of content because that’s what the debate becomes about.”
Donovan also worries that the creation of a vaccine disinformation “czar” could turn the position into a “lightning rod” for anti-vaccine activists. Nonetheless, Donovan told The Daily Beast that the COVID-19 task force appears to have paid close attention to experts and academic literature on health misinformation.
Murthy, for example, recently released a report with the Department of Health and Human Services, “Confronting Health Misinformation,” which calls for a “whole-of-society effort” to counter COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.
“Every researcher that’s published anything in the last couple years, the citation list is all of the different sources they draw on,” Donovan told The Daily Beast.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment about who on the COVID-19 Response Team has been tasked with advising the government on combatting disinformation, or why that role was not created during the transition.
Imran Ahmed, founding CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, praised Biden for “publicly shaming” Facebook, which he said has known about the efforts by anti-vaccine groups and individuals to spread disinformation about public health since the pandemic began.
“They can’t credibly claim they had no idea,” Ahmed said, referring to the proliferation of misinformation about the COVID vaccine on the platform.
Ahmed allowed that the Biden administration was “somewhat late to the party” on the issue, but noted that by the time Biden was inaugurated, the disinformation ecosystem had been humming on social media platforms for months.
“This is after four years of inaction, the gears of government are grinding into action and starting to move into a new gear.”
The efforts are slowly working, at least in some channels, as prominent conservatives have “had an altar call,” as Biden put it during a town hall on Wednesday night. On Tuesday, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy praised the Biden administration’s vaccination efforts in an op-ed on the conservative site, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity told viewers on the same day that he believes in the science of vaccination and urged fans to “please take COVID seriously.”
“Just like we’ve been saying, please take COVID seriously,” Hannity said. “I can’t say it enough. Enough people have died. We don’t need any more death.”
Ahmed said the next step should be a multi-agency task force across the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense and others to look at vaccine misinformation as well as the nexus of anti-vaxxers and other violent extremist movements.
But the risks of anti-vaccine sentiment thwarting efforts to immunize the country against the coronavirus have been known for ages. Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast last September that aggressive public messaging to counter anti-vaccine disinformation was critical to defeating the virus.
“Short of a mandate which, for which there is no practical precedent, if we were living in the best of all possible worlds, we would have a uniform message coming from the White House, medical societies about gaining traction,” Monto said at the time. “But in the current world, I’m not sure that’s feasible.”
Additional reporting: Jackie Kucinich