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Tension between Biden and Facebook 'remains incredibly strong,' author says

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Tension between President Joe Biden and tech giant Facebook (FB) stands at a fever pitch, even after Biden on Monday walked back earlier remarks accusing social media platforms of facilitating the spread of vaccine misinformation and contributing to U.S. deaths from COVID-19, New York Times technology reporter Cecilia Kang told Yahoo Finance on Monday.

"It felt like he was actually retreating a little bit — but the frustration and tension right now between the White House and Facebook still remains incredibly strong," says Kang, the co-author of “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination," which draws on interviews with more than 400 people in and around Facebook.

Biden set off a public back-and-forth with Facebook on Friday when he claimed that social media platforms are "killing people" through the spread of vaccine misinformation. 

In response, Facebook VP Guy Rosen on Saturday refuted the accusation, arguing in a blog post that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users has increased since January and advocating instead for a "whole of society" approach to ending the pandemic.

In his most recent comments on the subject, Biden softened his criticism on Monday by directing his ire toward the top influencers who spread vaccine misinformation on social media, rather than the platforms themselves. 

But he also called on Facebook to better address the problem.

"My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally that...they would do something about the misinformation," Biden told reporters.

Only 12 people are responsible for up to 73% of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook, according to a report released in March by advocacy group Center for Countering Digital Hate. Joseph Mercola, a top anti-vaccine influencer with 1.7 million followers on the platform, frequently posts messages skeptical of vaccines and uses his Facebook page to promote his anti-vaccine book "The Truth About COVID-19."

'It's not just us. It's not just social media'

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Kang said the public spat emerged in part because the Biden administration has identified misinformation as a key obstacle in the way of its effort to vaccinate 70% of the U.S. population — a goal the Biden administration has yet to achieve, despite an initial target date of July 4.

"The White House is really angry about what they see as the spread of misinformation leading to the hesitancy in adopting the vaccine," Kang says.

"Facebook is saying, 'Hey, don't blame us. It's not just us. It's not just social media. There are many reasons why people aren't adopting the vaccine and you shouldn't be finger pointing at us,'" she adds.

Since the fall, Facebook has tightened some rules against anti-vaccine content and vaccine-related misinformation on the platform. The company in October banned anti-vaccine advertisements on the platform, and in February said it would remove posts that make false statements about COVID-19 vaccines.

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to the media as he departs for a weekend visit to Camp David from the White House in Washington, U.S., July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Joe Biden talks to the media as he departs for a weekend visit to Camp David from the White House in Washington, U.S., July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As of Tuesday, 48.6% of Americans were fully vaccinated and 56.1% had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The U.S. has seen a 198% spike in coronavirus cases over the past 14 days, including a single-day tally of 55,828 cases on Monday, The New York Times reports.

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths have also increased significantly over the last two weeks, according to the CDC. State- and city-level data suggests the vast majority of such incidents have involved unvaccinated individuals, ABC reports.

Kang joined The New York Times after a decade at the Washington Post, following stints with the San Jose Mercury and Dow Jones.

On Saturday, in his blog post Rosen said vaccine hesitancy has declined 50% among U.S.-based users since April, according to a survey conducted by the company in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland. 

The survey also found vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the U.S. had increased from 70% to between 80% and 85% since January, Rosen said.

The White House is frustrated by Facebook's refusal to disclose information about the spread of misinformation on the platform, Kang reported in the New York Times on Saturday.

"There's a lot right now of pressure within the White House to meet their vaccination goals and Facebook is saying, 'We're actually doing our part not to kill people but to save lives,'" Kang tells Yahoo Finance.

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