Biden White House urged Meta to crack down on ‘vaccine-skeptical’ content on WhatsApp private chat platform
Newly-released communications between the Biden administration and Meta show an effort to crack down on so-called “vaccine-skeptical” content shared on the private communications platform WhatsApp.
Independent journalist David Zweig reported on Friday that the White House went beyond Twitter to curb COVID-related posts. Emails obtained through discovery from the ongoing Missouri v Biden legal battle show email exchanges from the White House to the tech giant began just days after President Biden took office.
Zweig stressed that unlike Facebook and Instagram, both of which are owned by Meta, WhatsApp is an encrypted direct messaging platform, Citing Meta, “90% of WhatsApp messages are from one person to another. And groups typically have fewer than 10 people.”
In an email from March 2021, Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, pressed Meta executives how they were “measuring reduction of harm” on WhatsApp, insisting they must have a “good mousetrap” to observe what encrypted content was being shared on the platform.
Flaherty also offered then-White House COVID senior adviser Andrew Slavitt, telling Meta he’d be “willing to get on the phone” a “couple of times per week if [it’s] necessary.”
“Because of WhatsApp’s structure, targeted suppression or censorship of certain information did not appear possible. Instead, much of the aim of the content moderation on WhatsApp, therefore, was to ‘push’ information to users,” Zweig wrote. “The service partnered with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and more than 100 governments and health ministries to send Covid-19 updates and vaccine-related messages to users. The company created initiatives such as a WhatsApp chatbot in Spanish to aid in making local vaccination appointments.”
Days after the previous email, Flaherty continued pressing Meta about moderating content on WhatsApp. He was told that Meta’s only moderation option would be “content-agnostic product interventions” which typically monitoring messages “that didn’t originate from a close contact” which it deemed “were more likely to contain misinformation” and reduce its “forwards” as a result.
Flaherty asked Meta how it “measured success,” to which an employee replied by pointing to the “reduction of forwards” and that it bans accounts “that engage in mass marketing or scam behaviors – including those who seek to exploit COVID-19 misinformation.” The employee also noted that “3 billion” COVID-related messages were sent by “governments, nonprofits and international organizations” to citizens via WhatsApp chatbots “and over 300 million messages have been sent over COVID-19 vaccine helplines” during the first quarter of 2021.
“In one of the follow up exchanges, Flaherty seemed dissatisfied with the response, and again pressed Meta to take action on vaccine hesitancy,” Zweig reported. ‘I care mostly about what actions and changes you’re making to ensure you’re not making our country’s vaccine hesitancy problem worse,’ he wrote. ‘I still don’t have a good, empirical answer on how effective you’ve been at reducing the spread of vaccine-skeptical content and misinformation to vaccine fence sitters.’”
In the email, Flaherty dinged Facebook for not having implemented an “algorithmic shift” in election-related content to prevent the Jan. 6 “insurrection” from being plotted on the platform, suggesting he doesn’t want such laid-back content moderation to occur on WhatsApp.
“Flaherty wanted empirical data about the effectiveness of reducing ‘vaccine-skeptical content’ on a platform composed of non-public messages. He wanted supposed misinformation on a private messaging app to be ‘under control.’ What, exactly, was he hoping to get Meta to do?” Zweig wrote. “It was obvious from the start that WhatsApp’s interface didn’t allow for the granular control Flaherty appeared to desire. And his smiley face response suggests he well understood this. Yet he kept badgering the Meta executives anyway.”
Zweig continued, “The exchanges about WhatsApp are arresting not because of what Meta ultimately did or did not do on the platform—since the company’s options for intervention appear to be limited—but because efforts to moderate content on a private messaging service was a continued interest for a White House official at all… Fortunately, targeted censorship on a private messaging app is still out of government reach.”
Fox News Digital asked the White House whether it had any concerns that such interactions with Meta have any First Amendment implications. The White House did not immediately respond.
Zweig, author of the “Silent Lunch” Substack newsletter, went viral in December with his contribution to the Twitter Files series, exposing how the White House under both President Biden and President Trump leaned on Twitter to moderate COVID-related content.