Biden White House pressured Facebook to censor vaccine skeptics on private messaging service WhatsApp

The past several months have revealed a huge amount of government pressure on virtual communication platforms to censor public content. New emails revealed through Missouri v. Biden show the administration went further, urging Facebook to censor private communications on its WhatsApp messaging service too.

Facebook (now known as Meta) has censored its private messaging app before. Ahead of the Brazilian presidential election in 2018, WhatsApp banned more than 100,000 accounts amid scare stories that the platform was being used by supporters of populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro to spread “misinformation.”

According to emails obtained through discovery in Missouri v. Biden, a multi-state lawsuit accusing the Biden Administration of colluding with tech companies to suppress First Amendment rights in the U.S., the White House also sought censorship on WhatsApp. Multiple emails beginning in March 2021 show Biden Director of Digital Strategy Rob Flaherty pressing Facebook executives to censor Americans on WhatsApp.

Flaherty wanted to know what they were doing to reduce harm on the messaging app. Seemingly dissatisfied with earlier explanations, on March 22, 2021, he wrote, “If you can’t see the message, I’m genuinely curious—how do you know what kinds of messages you’ve cut down on?

Facebook told the White House that it sought to limit virality on its platform in general, which would in turn choke off the flow of “misinformation” to reach a wider audience.

The suppression tools at their disposal—specifically, labeling and limiting message forwards—the Meta employee explained, were blunt “content-agnostic” interventions. The premise was that messages that didn’t originate from a close contact were more likely to contain misinformation. So by preventing virality in general, the company was automatically helping to prevent “misinformation”.

The answer seemingly didn’t satisfy Flaherty, who continued to press Facebook for more information on its efforts to stop “vaccine-skeptical content.”

In one of the follow up exchanges, Flaherty seemed dissatisfied with the response, and again pressed Meta to take action on vaccine hesitancy. “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.”

While there is no evidence that Facebook acquiesced to the government’s demands, it shows how far the federal government wanted to go: censoring private messages as well as public ones. Of course, to achieve this, private messages would have to be monitored.

The government of the UK, led by an ostensibly conservative party, is also waging an assault on private messaging apps. It is currently weighing legislation that would force private messaging apps to surveil private messages for illegal content. Signal, a popular encrypted app, said it would exit the UK if such proposals made it into law.


June 3, 2023


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