Two top House Republicans are pressing Facebook’s top executive about the social media company’s role in “censoring” content about the coronavirus pandemic, including the origins of COVID-19, following recent policy reversals by the Big Tech company.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Comer, the top GOP member on the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter on Wednesday to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg after newly revealed emails from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, indicated he worked behind the scenes to promote the natural origins hypothesis. Within that tranche of emails was a partially redacted discussion with Zuckerberg.
“In light of Facebook’s … censorship of certain COVID-19 content — including content about the pandemic’s origin — these communications with Dr. Fauci raise the prospect that the federal government induced Facebook to censor certain speech in violation of the First Amendment,” they wrote.
Jordan and Comer requested access to “all documents and communications between or among Facebook employees and U.S. government employees,” including Fauci, “relating to COVID-19, including about the origins of the virus.”
The GOP pair also asked Zuckerberg to provide all COVID-related information from Facebook referring Fauci, NIH, or the NIAID; all records of any U.S. government official asking Facebook to censor or moderate COVID-19 content; and “an accounting of all content moderation decisions made by Facebook relating to information about COVID-19” by “separately identifying each moderation decision induced or otherwise encouraged or approved by U.S. government employees or agencies.”
Jordan and Comer asked Facebook to produce the requested documents by June 23.
The Fauci emails, accessed by news organizations via Freedom of Information Act requests, show Zuckerberg wrote to Fauci in a March 15, 2020, email.
“I wanted to send a note of thanks for your leadership and everything you’re doing to make our country’s response to this outbreak as effective as possible. I also wanted to share a few ideas of ways we could help you get your message out,” Zuckerberg said. “This isn’t public yet, but we’re building a Coronavirus Information Hub that we’re going to put at the top of Facebook for everyone … with two goals: (1) make sure people can get authoritative information from reliable sources and (2) encourage people to practice social distance and give people ideas for doing this.”
Zuckerberg said he wanted Fauci to be involved.
“As a central part of this hub, I think it would be useful to include a video from you because people trust and want to hear from experts,” wrote the Facebook CEO, who also told Fauci about a proposal that remains redacted.
Courtney Billet, the communications director for NIAID, forwarded the email to Fauci and told him he should do the videos.
“But an even bigger deal is his offer [redacted],” she said.
“Thank you for your kind note … Your idea and proposal sound terrific. I would be happy to do a video for your hub,” Fauci wrote to Zuckerberg on March 17, 2020. “We need to reach as many people as possible and convince them to take mitigation strategies seriously or things will get much, much worse. Also, your idea about [redacted] is very exciting.”
Fauci did a lengthy Facebook Live with Zuckerberg on March 19, 2020, in which he said, “China hit very early on — which was the origin of where the virus first came out in Wuhan.”
In their letter, Jordan and Comer said, “Facebook also censored speech about COVID-19’s origins,” which remains a hot topic of debate more than a year and a half after the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China.
“While censoring and suppressing these types of speech, Facebook amplified sources like the World Health Organization — even though such sources have proven to be conflicted and unreliable in the past,” the GOP congressmen wrote. “Facebook’s censorship decisions did not occur in a vacuum, and there are indications that Facebook may have made content-moderation decisions regarding COVID-19 at the behest of certain government policies and positions.”
“It also appears that you shared some of Facebook’s confidential trade or commercial secrets with Dr. Fauci, as portions of your email exchange with Dr. Fauci were redacted when made publicly available,” Jordan and Comer added. “Your appeal to Dr. Fauci to serve as an ‘expert’ voice of Facebook’s platform suggests that the government’s views may have directly guided and led to Facebook’s approach to content moderation.”
Biden directed the U.S. intelligence community on May 26 to “redouble” its efforts to understand COVID-19’s origins. Last month, the intelligence community confirmed that one of its 18 spy agencies is leaning toward the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis to explain the outbreak.
Facebook, like other social media giants, has grappled with how to deal with misinformation about the coronavirus over the course of the pandemic. In response, Zuckerberg announced the creation of the Coronavirus Information Center during a March 18, 2020, call with reporters.
“The top priority and focus for us has been making sure that people can get access to good, authoritative information from trusted health sources,” Zuckerberg said. “We’ve also been able to partner with these organizations, including the WHO, to identify a list of claims that they classify as harmful misinformation, and we’ve been able to operationalize that and remove that.”
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said in a May 25, 2020, announcement, “For claims that don’t directly result in physical harm, like conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, we continue to work with our network of over 55 fact-checking partners covering over 45 languages to debunk these claims.”
Clegg again referred to “conspiracy theories” about COVID-19’s origins during an NPR interview the same day, noting if fact-checkers deem a claim as false, then “we will then downgrade it massively.”
A State Department fact sheet, released in January before former President Donald Trump left office, contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research.”
The fact sheet also contended the lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military” and that lab workers became sick with COVID-19-like symptoms in autumn 2019.
Facebook announced on Feb. 8 that “following consultations with leading health organizations, including the World Health Organization, we are expanding the list of false claims we will remove to include additional debunked claims about the coronavirus and vaccines.” That list included “claims such as: COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.”
But Facebook backtracked a few months later, as seen in a May 26 post, the same day Biden made his call to action to the U.S. intelligence community to further investigate the origins of COVID-19.
“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured,” the post said.