COVID-19 Communication Takes a Deadly Turn

Months ago, it seemed clear much of the COVID-19 story, at least in the United States, revolved around communication. It still does. The word ‘communication’ wasn’t used often when discussing battling COVID-19, but it remains a public need.

A more direct connection between the pandemic and communication bowed this week. During a briefing, July 15, the Biden administration said the spread of misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19 is a public health crisis.

As such, a talking point emerged: Big tech, Facebook in particular, is not doing enough to scotch falsities about COVID-19 and vaccination on social platforms.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki raised the stakes, adding another talking point and saying publicly what communicators have known for a while: Creating messages about COVID-19 and vaccines is far more than just a campaign.

“The pushback against disinformation [around COVID-19 is] that [it’s]…literally a matter of life and death,” Psaki told a media briefing.

Facebook Fatalities

This afternoon (July 16), President Biden made an even more direct link between mis and disinformation on Facebook with death from COVID-19. "They're killing people," he told a reporter.

That's about as direct a communication as you'll hear. As you'll see below, Facebook's response was similarly direct. Looked at from a purely communication viewpoint, the next moves should be interesting.

[Update: July 20, 2021, 9am ET: President Biden softened his Facebook comments yesterday. “Facebook isn’t killing people," Biden said. It's the dozen people who are providing misinformation on social channels, he added.]

Apparently there's little love lost between the Biden team and Facebook, The New York Times' Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Cecilia Kang report. The social media behemoth, they wrote, was uncooperative with White House efforts to mute COVID-19 misinformation on the platform. That might explain Biden's unusually direct attack at a private company.

Another factor behind the president's angst is the dangerous resurgence of COVID-19 despite the availability of vaccines that can stanch much of the disease's power. The country is suffering, Biden said today, from "a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

A Direct Message

Hours before Biden's comments, media and policy pundits picked up on Psaki's Thursday remarks with uncommon directness. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski said the spread on social media of mis- and disinformation about COVID-19 is “killing people.”

Similarly, Imran Ahmed, who heads the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told NPR prior to Biden's words, "On tobacco packets they say that tobacco kills…on social media we need a 'Surgeon General's Warning: Misinformation Kills.'"

A 22-Page Advisory

The surgeon general decided to issue an advisory. Dr. Vivek Murthy unveiled a 22-page document: "Confronting Health Misinformation." It's likely too long to attract most Americans to read it, yet its messages are sound and easily digested. They track with those of PR trade associations.

While the fight against mis- and disinformation will involve a broad effort, the advisory says, journalists and media have especially important roles. They're asked to be particularly aware of misinformation and avoid amplifying it, offer context, avoid inflammatory language and images and employ credible sources, preferably local sources.

All Vaccines are Local

Incidentally, local sources are a recent focus of the administration's vaccine push. Patients now can visit their doctors for a jab. In addition, the White House is asking local leaders, such as clergy, to tout the vaccine.

In media interviews today, though, the advisory's finer points were overtaken. Instead, Dr. Murthy went broader. Big tech, he admitted, has done much to fight mis- and disinformation about COVID-19. Still, it's not enough, he added.

“We’re losing people to misinformation,” Murthy said. “99.9% of deaths from COVID now are from unvaccinated people…these deaths might have been prevented…it’s breaking my heart,” the doctor conceded on Morning Joe. Ironically, “vaccine confidence” in the U.S. is at its "highest point” in history, he added.

During the briefing Thursday, Psaki added that getting big tech to be more vigilant is “something that is going to be a continued focus of this administration.” The White House, she said, will flag offending posts.

Game On: Facebook Responds 

Facebook shot back.

"So far we've removed more than 18 million pieces of COVID misinformation, removed accounts that repeatedly break these rules, and connected more than 2 billion people to reliable information about COVID-19 and COVID vaccines across our apps," a Facebook spokesperson said July 15. The company worked with government and health officials to take "aggressive action against misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to protect public health," the spokesperson added.

Today, Facebook responded to the president's 'killing people' comment. Its retort was even more assured than its previous statement.

“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” Facebook told The Verge. “The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet. More than 3.3 million Americans have also used our vaccine finder tool to find out where and how to get a vaccine. The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”

It's not that simple. Facebook can both save lives with useful information and the mis and disinformation on its platform can help kill people.

The C Word

Also smacking the 'mis- and disinformation equals death' theme were administration critics. Asking Facebook and others to monitor content smells of the C-word, they argued. A New York Post headline blared: “White House ‘flagging’ posts for Facebook to censor over COVID ‘misinformation’”

Similarly, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) called the White House’s displeasure with Facebook “really scary...[and] it really is censorship.”

As Rome Burns...

Mis- and disinformation are running rampant on Facebook and other platforms is not news. Public health experts, such as Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, have argued this for months.

What’s catalyzed this week's more direct communication is an alarming rise in cases and hospitalizations. The Delta variant needs no help from mis or disinformation. Estimates are that it's more than twice as contagious as the original virus.

As the White House, its opponents and media debate COVID-19 communication and how to get more Americans vaccinated, data show cases rising in all 50 states. Hospitalizations and deaths are down compared to the height of the pandemic in 2020, yet they're rising too. There were 21,000 people in hospitals yesterday, up 26 percent from two weeks ago.

Desperate Data

Disappointing data has prompted radical suggestions for COVID-19 communication.

For example, public health expert and inveterate Trump critic Dr. Irwin Redlener says it's time to appeal to the former president. Writing in The Daily Beast, Redlener said the Biden White House should urge Trump to appeal to his largely-unvaccinated base. Have him do a PSA urging his followers to get vaccinated. "If Trump needs to call it “the Trump Vaccine” to convince “his people” to take it, let him," Redlener writes.

Similarly, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace believes a PSA from Fox News urging viewers to vaccinate would help.

[Update: July 20, 2021, 9am ET: Fox News hosts Sean Hannity, Steve Doocy and Bill Hemmer yesterday urged viewers to vaccinate.]

Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page senses the moment's importance. Its July 16 editorial said the country is at a "COVID vaccine crossroads." Threading the political needle, one can detest government mandates, the Journal said, but still support mass vaccination.

With just fewer than 50 percent of Americans vaccinated, reaching 70-80 percent still seems a distant goal.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him @skarenstein