White House officials pressed Facebook for special access to tools to target vaccine-hesitant users and berated Facebook employees for not sharing enough data, contradicting White House claims at the time.
According to internal company communications viewed by Fox Business, the White House asked Facebook if they could provide government agencies with special access to tools to target users.
“Since it’s a global pandemic, can we give agencies access to targeting parameters that they normally wouldn’t be able to?” President Biden’s digital director Rob Flaherty asked.
The idea came up in a conversation about how to convince people worried about side effects around the COVID vaccine to take it.
On an April 5th call, a Facebook employee mentioned how if someone was worried about nose bleeds as a side effect of the vaccine, in an ideal world, they would direct them to information addressing that concern. Flaherty asked the Facebook team “are you able to provide resources?”
Another Facebook employee replied doing something like showing them a targeted resource addressing their concern might trigger people. The Facebook employee said they “have to be careful in how we approach”.
Flaherty asked, “If people are having the conversation, is the presumption that we let people have it. Direct them to CDC. What then?”
A Facebook employee replied, “We all know people that have had the experience that think that FB is listening to them.”
The Facebook employee told Flaherty that something like an immediate generated message about nose bleeds might give users “the Big Brother feel” but suggested they show the content on a delay to avoid setting off alarm bells among users.
“We should pay attention to those conversations, make sure that people see information, even if it’s not right then,” the Facebook employee said.
During the April 5th call, Biden’s head of strategic communications and public engagement for the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Courtney Rowe appeared to mock middle America’s ability to determine what is true and what isn’t.
“If someone in rural Arkansas sees something on FB, it’s the truth,” Rowe said. “What we need is help pushing back on the myths.”
The idea that “Big Brother” was snooping on people’s Facebook conversations is something the White House brushed off at the time when FOX’s Peter Doocy asked about it in July 2021. Doocy asked then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the time if the government was “spying” on people’s profiles looking for vaccine misinformation.
Psaki claimed “This is publicly open information, people sharing information online. Just as you are all reporting information on your news stations”.
Doocy followed up, “The big concern though, I think, for a lot of people on Facebook is that now this is Big Brother watching you.”
“They’re more concerned about that than people dying across the country because of a pandemic where misinformation is traveling on social media platforms? That feels unlikely to me,” Psaki replied.
The calls between the White House and Facebook grew more hostile. On an April 14th phone call between White House officials and Facebook staff, Andy Slavitt, President Biden’s White House Senior Advisor for the COVID response, along with Flaherty, ripped into Facebook for not divulging enough information.
Slavitt suggested that Facebook and WhatsApp were being much more difficult to deal with than other platforms the White House was interfacing with.
“Conversations are not as challenging – we have much more straightforward conversations with others,” Slavitt said.
Flaherty agreed, “I feel like we’re running around in circles. Some partners give us lots of information, some partners tell us to f— right off. This feels like we’re chasing our tails. If you don’t want to give information, just say that.”
“My dream for FB to play ball. It’s about will we get out of this f—ing mess,” Flaherty continued. “I’m not doubting that you are sincerely trying to solve this problem in good faith. I’m doubting that you are telling us everything… We have to explain to President… why there is misinformation on the internet… We don’t want to be in a position where we take down bad news. But if your goal as a company is to make it more likely that people will get the vaccine. People don’t see this in only one way.”
A Facebook employee replied, “We can’t ask news outlets to take down bad news”.
After the testy call on April 14th, Facebook followed up with a big dump of data to the White House. Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs, emailed his team on April 18th recapping a phone call he had with Slavitt.
Clegg wrote, “He [Slavitt] was appreciative of the data we sent thru on Friday, and confirmed that Rob F had said that they had never received so much data from us before.”
Clegg said they agreed to have Flaherty “share the data and policy recommendations from the researchers with us asap so that we could give a considered reply on further steps we may/may not be able to take.”
Meta confirms to FOX that the data dump referenced by Clegg was data gathered from CrowdTangle, Meta’s tool that analyzes public content on its platform. Facebook in the past has acknowledged it shared CrowdTangle data with the White House.
Meta declined to provide a comment for this story.