Facebook and Joe Biden.

What's the right course of action?
Isaac Saul Jul 21, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

We’re taking a look at the Facebook-Biden administration controversy. Plus, a reader asks about why I won’t go further left in my sources.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerbeg meets former President Donald Trump at the White House. Photo: Flickr / White House

Correction.

First, two clarifications: I wrote yesterday that Dwight Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to overthrow the Castro regime, which eventually led to the Bay of Pigs invasion. This is accurate, though a few people rightly pointed out that JFK deserves some credit (read: blame) and the Cuban Missile Crisis probably should have been mentioned in the brief history of Cuba. Second, a sentence read “The overthrow failed, and Castros have been in power since earlier this summer.” Obviously, I meant until this summer! This sentence originally read “Castros have been in power ever since,” but I edited it to note that Raúl stepped down earlier this summer and some wires got crossed. Thanks to all you sharp-eyed readers.

Finally, an actual correction: I referred to House “Majority” Leader Kevin McCarthy. Nothing exciting here — this was just a brain flub. McCarthy is the minority leader. The good news, though, is that this correction ends one of the longest correction-free streaks in Tangle history.

We’re getting better.

This is the 40th Tangle correction in its 102-week existence and the first since June 6. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize my transparency with readers, and to model the positive behavior of admitting when you screw up.


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Quick hits.

  1. An appeals court threw out a Republican lawsuit against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that aimed to end the practice of proxy voting, which has allowed members of Congress to vote remotely during the pandemic. (The New York Times, subscription)
  2. The Delta variant now makes up 83 percent of new U.S. Covid-19 cases. (NBC News) New infections are now disrupting life in Congress, too. (Politico)
  3. Economists expect continued spending and hiring with limited disruptions despite the spread of the Delta variant. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  4. Former Trump advisor Tom Barrack, who served in 2017 as Trump’s inaugural committee chair, is pleading not guilty to charges of being an agent of the United Arab Emirates. (Fox News)
  5. A growing number of Republican politicians and media figures are urging their constituents and followers to get vaccinated against coronavirus. (The Washington Post, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Facebook. On Monday, we covered vaccine hesitancy in the United States. According to the Biden administration, one of the driving forces of that hesitancy has been misinformation on social media networks like Facebook.

On Friday, Biden said companies like Facebook “are killing people” by allowing misinformation to spread (he later backed off the comments, saying it’s not Facebook killing people but the users sharing the misinformation). Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was “flagging problematic posts” for Facebook to identify and remove, and argued that if someone is removed from one platform for spreading misinformation they should be removed from others as well.

Facebook responded with a blog post laying out all the things they do to stop the spread of misinformation, and criticized the Biden administration for finger-pointing.

“At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,” the blog post said. “While social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic. And facts — not allegations — should help inform that effort. The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the US has increased. These and other facts tell a very different story to the one promoted by the administration in recent days.”

Over the last few months, Facebook has taken increased action against certain kinds of posts, saying it would no longer allow anti-vaccination ads and would remove posts with erroneous claims about vaccines.

Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions to the Biden administration saying they were working with Facebook, the spat between Facebook and the Biden administration, and how to police misinformation online.


What the left is saying.

The left is split on the issue, with some deeply concerned about Facebook spreading misinformation and others critical of the Biden administration’s blame game.

In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin said Biden “hit the nail on the head.”

“One can quibble over whether Facebook or a mendacious Fox News host actually affects an individual’s decision to avoid vaccination, but it is hard to deny they can reinforce life-threatening behavior,” she said. “Once more playing the right-wing gotcha game, Fox News’s Peter Doocy on Friday, ostensibly in response to a comment made by White House press secretary Jen Psaki about the handful of people on Facebook who promote most anti-vaccine content on the platform, demanded to know why the White House is spying on people’s social media profiles. That was a ridiculous, demonstrably false assertion. Perhaps if Fox News personnel paid attention to credible news accounts, they would be less inclined to make such wild accusations.

“Disinformation spreaders, including elected officials such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), are putting people at risk,” she wrote. “Not only do these voices discourage vaccination, and thereby endanger those inclined to follow their advice, they also put children too young to receive the vaccination at risk. It is hard to imagine a more disgraceful way to make money or advance one’s career. Rather than advance any ‘pro-life’ agenda, vaccine disinformation has created a sort of right-wing death cult in which its members are willing to put themselves and their children in harm’s way to ‘own the libs.’”

Farhad Manjoo said Biden made him feel bad (“only a little bad”) for Mark Zuckerberg.

“By accusing Facebook and other social media companies of ‘killing people’ through what Biden said was their lax policing of vaccine misinformation, the president 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.

“Worse, Biden fed into the bogus right-wing notion that Facebook and other social media giants now operate as media arms of the Democratic Party, a belief that will only undermine whatever greater action against vaccine nonsense that the companies might take,” he added. “If Facebook decides, tomorrow, to ban all criticism of the Covid-19 vaccines, its actions will be instantly undermined as Big Tech censoring ‘the truth’ to satisfy the radical left or some other such reflexive dismissal. On cue, The Wall Street Journal editorial board declared on Monday that Biden was only criticizing Facebook because ‘Facebook has bent to politicians far too much, inviting this latest assault.’”

In her newsletter, Caitlin Johnstone said the U.S. information ecosystem has bigger problems than vaccine misinformation.

“The weirdest thing about the Biden administration tasking itself with the censorship of ‘disinformation’ on social media is that the United States is the hub of a globe-spanning empire that is built upon a foundation of disinformation, maintained by disinformation, and facilitated by disinformation,” she wrote. “It's not the big, famous lies like those which preceded the invasion of Iraq that make up the bulk of the adhesive holding the empire together, it's the small, mundane lies we're fed every single day by the plutocratic media…This normalization happens in the way pundits and politicians treat any attempt to end wars or redress income inequality as freakish extremism and unrealistic fantasy, when in reality it's the most sane and normal thing in the world and the only thing unrealistic about it is the fact that attempts to advance those agendas are always sabotaged by those same pundits and politicians.

“If the mass media actually existed to share important information about the world, the US-backed genocide in Yemen would be front-page news every day instead of something which gets a marginal mention once every few weeks,” she wrote. “If the mass media actually existed to share important information about the world, the fact that Americans are getting poorer and poorer while billionaires multiply their wealth during the pandemic would be brought front and center to everyone's attention.”


What the right is saying.

The right is critical of the Biden administration for blaming Facebook and for trying to work with the social media giant to flag misinformation.

In The New York Post, Rachel Bovard said it was “tyrannical” for the government to be dictating social media bans.

“White House press secretary Jen Psaki casually confirmed on Thursday what skeptical conservatives and some civil libertarians have been suspecting for years: that the world’s biggest speech platforms take direction from the government in choosing what content to suppress, amplify, or remove,” she wrote. “‘We are in regular touch with social media platforms about COVID-19 related misinformation, including misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine,’ Psaki said. ‘We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook.’… This is a startling admission. It was backed up by a 22-page ‘health misinformation’ guidance issued by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in which he urged the social media platforms to ‘impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies.’

“The White House is motivated by a real problem: overtly wrong information about the COVID-19 vaccine,” she wrote. “Some of the posts are factually inaccurate, and some of it misrepresents the fact that vaccines, in general, do work… But the administration’s solution — to control what can be said and who can use the world’s biggest speech platforms — is deeply unsettling and, frankly, undemocratic.”

In The Hill, Joe Concha argued that Facebook does not have a strong track record and is biased in how it polices content.

“Because remember: Until about one month ago, Facebook censored posts about COVID possibly originating in a lab in Wuhan, China,” he wrote. “Many in the media and in the Democratic Party called it a reckless conspiracy theory. Now suddenly it’s a real possibility, as even some Democrats are conceding… In a related story, Facebook also suppressed and censored any posts about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop shortly before the 2020 election, which appear to show that he peddled influence by using the family name. Not one person – including anyone in the Biden campaign – has refuted the contents of those emails, while Hunter himself has conceded that there ‘could be a laptop out there’ that belongs to him. In another related story, the president's son is currently under federal investigation, which was only revealed after the November 2020 election.

“Bottom line: The government and arguably the most powerful communications platform on the planet cannot and should not be working together to stop whatever it is they deem as misinformation,” he said.

In the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg said Biden is looking for someone to blame.

“He can’t directly blame the people not getting vaccinated, as tempting as that might be, because he still needs them to get vaccinated,” he wrote. “Moreover, while white Republican pro-Trump types are getting all the press for their vaccine hesitancy, the reality is more complicated. Black Americans and Latinos are overrepresented among the ranks of vaccine resisters, and Democrats can’t insult them, particularly since a great many of them reside in blue states. Enter Big Tech.

“Scapegoating social media for allegedly allowing vaccine conspiracy theories to flourish is a great way to shift blame,” he said. “In practice, however, this is a terrible idea. It fuels the notion that getting vaccinated — or not — is some kind of political statement. It also feeds the right’s claim that social media companies are de facto extensions of the Democratic Party, the Deep State, etc. Democrats are ‘going to monopolists and saying, you are our tool to censor views we disagree with,’ Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said on Fox News on Sunday. Going along with the idea that the vaccine will kill you — or make you magnetic — may be irresponsible and dangerous, but it’s become just another generic political ‘view.’ And it’s good politics for conservatives unwilling to rile up parts of their base.”


My take.

I have plenty of beef with Facebook (mostly for its role in helping destroy the news industry and how it has destabilized nations), but I’m not sure vaccine hesitancy is one of the things they deserve blame for. I actually found the company’s blog post pretty compelling, if we’re working from a place where we trust the data they’re sharing. Perhaps the most direct refutation was this line about a massive survey Facebook ran: “The data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19. President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.”

Anecdotally, I can tell you that anytime I log onto Facebook and see a post about Covid-19, it is almost always tagged by Facebook’s machine learning algorithm with links to CDC or World Health organization information about the vaccines. I have clicked into those links just to experiment, and they often point me in the direction of actually getting vaccinated with info about clinics near me (Facebook says some 3.3 million Americans have used their vaccine finder tool, which is a believable number). That Facebook can so easily guide me toward a vaccination is concerning for other reasons, but it doesn’t feel to me as if the network is simply letting vaccine misinformation run roughshod anymore. According to their own data, they’ve removed 18 million “misinformation posts.” Sure, we don’t know out of how many, but 18 million is 18 million.

Similarly, my own experience navigating the internet does not make me think Facebook is the leading purveyor of this stuff. I am far more likely to run into vaccine misinformation when I sign up for newsletters, go to alternative websites, peruse YouTube, enter Telegram chats, or listen to talk radio than I am when I go on Facebook.

I also have to confess I groaned aloud when I heard Jen Psaki say the administration was helping “flag” misinformation. Please, Lord, no. Facebook already has too much power, the absolute last thing we need is for them to be working hand in glove with the leaders of the free world. As many conservative columnists have rightly argued, Facebook (and the Biden administration) have repeatedly called things misinformation that were not misinformation, and already throttled or removed posts that should not have been censored in any way. Both the Hunter Biden laptop story and the lab leak theories fall into this category.

As I said Monday: vaccines are safe and effective. That we’re witnessing breakthrough infections is not a reason to dismiss the vaccine — it’s more reason to get one before you get infected, which will all but ensure you have, at worst, a mild case. But deleting a bunch of Facebook posts at the direction of the White House is not going to convince people who are skeptical about vaccines that everything is on the up and up. It’s much more likely to have the opposite effect. Facebook seems to understand they can do the most good by moderating the most egregious posts and pointing people to “good” information (rather than trying to silence the “bad” information). They’re right, and they should keep it up.


Your questions, answered.

Q: How do you decide what the right or left is saying? I'm on the socialist side of the left-wing discourse, and I have to say it seems as far-left as you're willing to go in terms of who you cite as what the left is saying is from The Nation magazine.  Which is all well and good, but to me that doesn't seem representative of the discourse.

— Anonymous, Atlanta, Georgia

Tangle: I’ve answered versions of this question in the past (I actually wrote about what sources I consult earlier this month), but it seems worth replying to as it relates directly to “the left.”

First and foremost I’ll just defend the record here: Tangle frequently cites authors from Jacobin Magazine (unabashedly socialist and far-left), The Root, Slate, The New Republic, The American Prospect, and all sorts of other “far-left” or “Democratic socialist” perspectives. And I do that because I agree they are part of the discourse and dominate left-wing politics (today’s newsletter, for instance, features Caitlin Johnstone, who is one of the most fiercely anti-establishment progressives out there).

But I also try to be proportional. Twitter, as everyone loves to say, is not real life. The Washington Post and The New York Times editorial boards are far more representative of your average liberal, Democrat or “person on the left” than The Nation or Jacobin. That may not be true in 15 years, but it is now. There are loads of ways to make that argument, but polling, recent election results and years of actually interviewing voters have all informed my perspective there. Joe Biden easily won the Democratic nomination for a reason, and it’s the same reason the 2018 “blue wave” was on the backs of moderate candidates while ultra-progressive candidates continue to struggle in actual elections.

Now, don’t get me wrong: socialism and other varieties of very-left politics are gaining steam every day. While Biden dominated the Black vote, 60 percent of Black Americans view socialism positively in recent polls. So do 45 percent of women and 33 percent of non-white Republicans. But polling is different than practice, and in practice voters tend to opt for moderation over radical change.

In Tangle, my goal is to share arguments I find compelling, arguments I think are representative of the discourse, and arguments that speak to each other. There have absolutely been times where I underrepresented the more progressive wings of the party — and other times where I’ve overrepresented them, depending on the context of the story. Often I try to remedy that by sharing reader responses. Similarly, I think I have at times underrepresented your average Trump Republican’s perspective. It’s a constant game of trying to strike that balance and include the widest range of perspectives possible.

If you want to ask a question to be answered in the newsletter, you can simply reply to this email and write in. It goes straight to my inbox. You can also fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The oldest millennials are turning 40 this year. They have less wealth, more debt and about the same earnings as past generations had at their age. But compared to their younger generational peers, older millennials have less student debt and are more likely to own homes and have kids. In a recent Insider post, the reporter Hillary Hoffower tried to look at the “typical 40-year-old millennial,” who is not a frivolous 20-something taking selfies, but instead is holding $128,000 of debt and earns about $73,000 a year. (Insider)


Numbers.

  • 30%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they haven’t yet gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll.
  • 24%. The percentage of unvaccinated adults who said they’d be “somewhat or very likely” to get the vaccine if they were given paid time off to get it.
  • 26%. The percentage of unvaccinated adults who said they’d be “somewhat or very likely” to get the vaccine if they could get it at their doctor’s office.
  • 52-45. President Biden’s favorable-unfavorable rating, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 45-47. Vice President Kamala Harris’s favorable-unfavorable rating, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

Remember!

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Have a nice day.

A group of high school students has devised a way for a father with impaired mobility to walk with his newborn son. Jeremy King, 37, underwent surgery for a brain tumor that left him with physical issues such as loss of balance. When he and his wife found out they were expecting a child, they immediately got worried about how he could physically take the child on walks and other activities. So his wife, Chelsie, turned to a fellow teacher who ran a class called ‘Making for Social Good’ where students are challenged to design products with a positive impact. And his students stepped up, creating a stroller device that could connect an infant car seat to King’s wheelchair. (Good Morning America)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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