Let’s say you’re Joe Biden.
For entirely valid and legitimate reasons, you staked much of your presidency on getting the country vaccinated. You had a very good start, but then things started to stall right as a new, more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus was spreading.
This is a problem. I don’t just mean it’s a political problem. (I’ll get to that.) It’s a public policy problem. Like national defense and law enforcement, fighting a pandemic is probably one of the few things political thinkers, conservative or progressive, in the past would have agreed was the task of government.
At least until recently. Now, to listen to many of Biden’s conservative critics, getting people vaccinated is just another liberal scheme, like the Green New Deal or pushing critical race theory. That’s really the only explanation for why the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference cheered when told that the Biden administration failed to hit its vaccination targets. It’s a bit like cheering when a war goes poorly because it will make the Democratic commander in chief look bad.
Then there’s the political problem. And Biden, like the typical politician that he is, wants someone to blame. But who?
He can’t directly blame the people not getting vaccinated, as tempting as that might be, because he still needs them to get vaccinated. Moreover, while white Republican pro-Trump types are getting all the press for their vaccine hesitancy, the reality is more complicated. Black Americans and Latinos are overrepresented among the ranks of vaccine resisters, and Democrats can’t insult them, particularly since a great many of them reside in blue states.
Enter Big Tech.
For years, Republicans have gotten an enormous amount of political mileage beating up on Facebook, Twitter, and Google (including YouTube) for “censoring” conservatives. Their deplatforming of Donald Trump after the January 6 riot sent the effort into overdrive.
Democrats have been piling on, too, of course. But from the opposite direction. The right wants the government to enforce less moderation. Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio recently denounced Twitter for banning an antisemitic white nationalist. Democrats want even more moderation, particularly since many of them believe Facebook and Twitter let themselves be used by the Trump campaign and/or Vladimir Putin to benefit Trump.
Scapegoating social media for allowing vaccine conspiracy theories to flourish is a great way to shift blame. On Thursday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a blistering charge that social media platforms “have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by announcing that the administration will be “flagging” misinformation for Facebook. On Friday, Joe Biden barked that the platform was “killing people”—but walked that back on Monday, saying he was accusing Facebook users of spreading deadly lies.
For its part, Facebook shot back with a remarkably barbed statement for a company desperate to get out of Washington’s crosshairs. It notes that its users’ vaccine acceptance rate exceeds that of the public at large.
As a constitutional matter, the Biden administration’s tactic is problematic. The government shouldn’t be in the business of telling private companies what to publish—or not publish—save in a few very narrow circumstances. One could argue that misinformation about vaccines during a pandemic that has cost more than 600,000 lives and trillions of dollars is one of those narrow exceptions.
In practice, however, this is a terrible idea. It fuels the notion that getting vaccinated—or not—is some kind of political statement. It also feeds the right’s claim that social media companies are de facto extensions of the Democratic Party, the Deep State, etc.
Democrats are “going to monopolists and saying, ‘You are our tool to censor views we disagree with,’” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said on Fox News. Going along with the idea that the vaccine will kill you (or make you magnetic) may be irresponsible and dangerous, but it’s become just another generic political “view.” And it’s good politics for conservatives unwilling to rile up parts of their base.
It’s similar for Biden. Many Democrats are as irrationally worried about the pandemic as many Republicans are irrationally blasé about it. For instance, the people most worried about the Delta variant are vaccinated, while the people least worried about it are not.
There’s a large Democratic constituency eager to blame red state vaccine resisters and the right-wingers who cater to them for the changing course of the pandemic. Whether intended or not, the Biden administration’s attacks on Facebook strike me as a fairly brilliant and (so far) successful trolling operation intended to change the subject.