When White House officials asked Facebook to explain why sister company Instagram temporarily stopped recommending President Biden’s account, hurting its audience growth, an executive blamed “an internal technical issue that we can’t get into” but had been resolved.
“Are you guys f***ing serious?” Director of Digital Strategy Rob Flaherty responded July 15, 2021, a day before the president accused social media platforms of “killing people” by insufficiently censoring disapproved COVID-19 claims. “I want an answer on what happened here and I want it today,” Flaherty demanded.
He got a short explanation 37 minutes later and a long explanation 18 days later: Instagram mistook Biden’s “far above normal” posts on vaccines as evidence of vaccine misinformation for two weeks. The Facebook executive rejected the White House request to “boost” the POTUS account in its recommendations as “remediation.”
The president claimed that inflation was 0% in July. Twitter users noted the inflation rate for the month was actually 8.5% and that Biden is “referring to the change in inflation” since June, which had the same 8.5% rate. The context was appended below Biden’s tweet.
“Happy to connect you with some economists who can explain the basics to you guys,” Flaherty wrote sarcastically to Twitter.
“I like the feature!” Jesse Lee, senior adviser for communications to the National Economic Council, responded when a Twitter executive explained Birdwatch. “But this note is factually inaccurate .. you are in effect calling the President a liar when his tweet is actually accurate.”
The Twitter executive offered to talk to Lee. The Birdwatch label is no longer attached to the tweet, though it’s not clear when or why it was removed.
The email threads are among dozens between the White House and tech platforms that Just the News received from the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which along with Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general is suing the feds for social media censorship. The plaintiffs have shared some communications publicly in The Wall Street Journal and on Twitter.
Requests to censor purported COVID misinformation have also emerged in the “Twitter Files,” most recently the revelation that former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a Pfizer board member, convinced Twitter to throttle an August 2021 tweet by his interim successor praising natural immunity as “superior” to vaccine-induced immunity. Gottlieb’s Pfizer affiliation wasn’t disclosed in Twitter’s internal referral of his message for action.
Pfizer, together with Moderna, has dominated the sales market for COVID-19 vaccines, reaping tens of billions of dollars in revenue from a product under increasing scrutiny for concerns abut efficacy and safety.
The plaintiffs said the latest discovery batch arrived Jan. 6. The communications show the White House portraying its requests — which included courting YouTube influencers, trying to suppress Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and coaching Facebook how to respond to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “pause” — as something short of censorship.
The White House has never asked for removal of “vaccine hesitant stuff,” but “slowing it down seems reasonable,” Flaherty told Facebook in May 2021. He also asked the platform to review “mom centric” groups and others that question COVID vaccines as a secondary purpose.
Flaherty told Google executives a month earlier that the U.S. was shifting from a “supply problem” to a “demand problem” for COVID vaccines and the “highest levels” of the White House were concerned that “YouTube is ‘funneling’ people into hesitance and intensifying” resistance. Even so, he protested, he wasn’t advocating content removal as a “realistic — or even good — solution.”
A thread that begins June 16, 2021 suggests the White House had recently asked YouTube to facilitate a collaboration with The Try Guys comedy troupe to promote COVID vaccination by July 4, the date Biden set for the U.S. to hit 70% vaccination. YouTube asked if Biden himself could appear in the video.
Flaherty’s deputy, Christian Tom, told The Try Guys “there is a real chance here to help save lives here — for the young people themselves as well as their families and communities etc.,” making the frequent but unsupported claims that COVID vaccination meaningfully benefits low-risk young people and prevents transmission.
The Try Guys said they couldn’t make the rushed date but proposed further conversations. Just the News couldn’t find a Try Guys White House video.
Flaherty demanded an explanation from YouTube in July 2021 when a CNN reporter showed screenshots recommending him “anti-vaccine content,” including Sen. Paul grilling a witness about COVID vaccines at a Hill hearing.
YouTube responded that none of the examples violated its policies but reiterated that it raises “authoritative voices while reducing visibility of borderline content.”
Facebook told White House officials April 13, 2021 that it was “keen to amplify any messaging you want us to project” about the FDA and CDC jointly recommending a Johnson & Johnson pause while they investigated a “rare and severe type of blood clot” following vaccination in six people.
Flaherty suggested telling Facebook users that “[a]dverse events are very rare” and asked Facebook to report back in a day on misinformation “spinning off” the pause.
He also sought “a commitment” to “make sure that a favorable review reaches as many people as the pause, either through hard product interventions or algorithmic amplification.” Facebook did not unequivocally agree, asking to “talk through this one a bit more.”