I had somehow missed that some in the press have been trying to relight the pilot light on the whole “Biden gaffe” narrative after Biden theoretically accidentally noted that Facebook, in becoming a fountain of anti-vaccine, anti-safety conspiracy theories, was “killing people.” I’d claim this is because I Have Other Things To Do, but we all know that’s not true so let’s just go with Yeah, I guess we sort of saw that happening and chose to block it out.
But let’s try to shake ourselves awake again, just for the sake of keeping up with the times and all.
For those of you who were unaware, last Friday Biden made his theoretically unscripted remark noting that social media platforms like Facebook are “killing people” in their unwillingness to tamp down on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on the sites. This made Facebook extremely upset, and since Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t yet built an enormous megapolluting Space Penis like the rest of the world’s billionaires the company instead had to settle for making sniffy statements about how Biden was being mean and a jerk or whatever.
On Monday Biden revised his remarks, saying “Facebook isn’t killing people, these 12 people [on Facebook] are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people.” He said he had “hope” that “instead of taking it personally, […] that they would do something about the misinformation.”
This has led to some reporters reflexively trying to wedge the statements into a “Biden unscripted” or “Biden mouthing off” or “why can’t Biden keep his mouth shut” in pairing with “why won’t Biden talk to us more” and sure, we get it, when you’re on deadline there’s nothing more tantalizing than a pre-prepared narrative you’ve already got sitting on your desk from the last time around.
But is Biden’s original assertion that Facebook is “killing people” a gaffe to begin with? Well … no. No it’s not. It’s objectively true, after all; along with Fox News and other outlets willing to exchange vaccine misinformation for a boosted audience that can be sold to advertisers, Facebook is allowing information on their site that they, in their own reports, have identified as being untrue, that Americans are citing as reasons not to get a potentially lifesaving vaccine during a deadly worldwide pandemic, and that is resulting in deaths.
You can argue that Facebook is not liable for those deaths, or that Facebook has no plausible way to prevent them, or that Facebook could take action to prevent the deaths but it would have such dire ramifications for free speech that allowing widespread deaths through misinformation would be preferable, but you can’t say it’s not happening. Facebook itself identified a core den of propagandists that are responsible for a large chunk of all vaccine disinformation on their platform. It’s allowing that den to remain active.
Just from a factual standpoint, then, it doesn’t count as a gaffe. It might count as a “gaffe” in the sense of “saying the true thing when saying the true thing will disadvantage you from a political or tactical standpoint,” but is that the case here? Should Biden have not pissed Facebook off with such rudeness?
Even that’s a bit dodgy. It’s clear that the White House now thinks “pissing Facebook off” is one of the few ways left to goad Facebook into giving more of a damn about American lives than they currently do. Facebook has long resisted all calls to take down demonstrably hoax-based content, for the rather simple reason that monitoring such content would require a very large number of human moderators, and nobody in Facebook management is going to be able to fund a Giant Space Penis if advertising revenues are instead diverted into long-term efforts to make sure Facebook posts are not directly causing American deaths.
Having the president of the United States single your company out by name as a reason Americans are currently dying is a very high-profile readjustment of the corporate status quo. You may still believe that your company is doing the right thing by researching the top promoters of anti-vaccine disinformation on the site and then meting out little to no punishment, but the White House expressing public anger over your company’s lack of coherent response, after largely keeping their displeasure private, changes the risks your company faces by doing nothing.
Similarly, Biden “backing down” a bit a few days later so as to make it clear that his primary beef is with the misinformers themselves, rather than the company, is the usual carrot-and-stick approach used in countless political and corporate scenarios. Your company is doing an extremely bad thing and everybody should hate you might be the stick. But I’m your friend and am still willing to help you out of this mess if you’ll let me, hint hint.
This is sounding perilously close to me giving a shit about any of this, so let’s dial back a bit now. The point is not that this is a brilliant move by Dear Leader Biden, savior of the nation and dude who is not compelled to start off every Cabinet meeting by going around the room to see whose tongue can best polish his overpriced shoes. The point is that pointing out that a company’s indifference to killing people is resulting in people getting killed is not exactly outlier behavior for any president worth his salt, and boy howdy if that’s enough to get you hot and bothered you don’t even want to hear some of the rhetoric presidents have blasted their nemeses with in ye olden days of take-your-pick.
If anything, Biden and the White House are still being too blasé about all this. Facebook’s unwillingness to crack down on propaganda efforts devoted to convincing Americans they should not get lifesaving vaccinations because “magnets” or similar bullshit is quite literally killing people. Fox News hosts are quite glibly killing people. You can go into the hospitals and see the victims; you can read the news stories and unvaccinated patients appear quite willing to tell you how it is that they came to feel that they could skate through a deadly worldwide pandemic by popping a few vitamin pills and yelling about communists. It ain’t subtle.
And while First Amendment issues might very well come into play in the general vicinity of these decisions, decisions by Facebook, Fox, and other outlets to turn a blind eye to or actively monetize speech that results in active harm to users are not constrained by First Amendment concerns. The government might have a damn difficult time barring Facebook from hosting such content, but there’s no First Amendment issue with government pointing out that Facebook, the Facebook over there with the big buildings and near-complete capture of social interactions on the internet hellscape, is valuing cash over human lives.
Yes, Facebook is killing people. You can argue they can’t do much about that. You can argue that the prioritization of profits over responsible moderation is within their creepy late-state capitalistic rights, if you like. If Facebook went away tomorrow, however, a great many lives would likely be saved specifically because Some Nasty Grifting Profit-Seeking Bullshitter will have been prevented from pushing out false health information during a deadly pandemic. That’s not really in dispute.
You can gripe about the rudeness of saying so, but it seems like we’ve reached the limits of what actions Facebook is willing to take to save lives if government leaders aren’t willing to say it out loud. Biden’s “gaffe” seems like a perfectly normal strategic move to escalate the stakes for Facebook now that Facebook has decided to stonewall the health officials begging them to act more responsibly.
The ball’s back in your court, worst social media company to ever exist. You’re still good with just whining that your detractors are being super-mean about all this?
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