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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Blames Big Tech for Vaccination Shortfalls
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Blames Big Tech for Vaccination Shortfalls

Plus: A federal judge puts a freeze on new applicants to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Happy Monday! Watch Space Jam (1996) and Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) back-to-back and try making the case to us that LeBron James is the GOAT instead of Michael Jordan. We’d like to see you try.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Commerce Department reported Friday that U.S. retail sales rose 0.6 percent from May to June, outpacing economists’ projections. 

  • A federal judge ruled on Friday that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is illegal, halting the approval of new Dreamer applications but leaving the more than 600,000 current DACA recipients’ status untouched. President Joe Biden called the decision “deeply disappointing” and said the Department of Justice intends to appeal it.

  • Bloomberg reports that more than 1 million Cubans are using a U.S.-backed censorship evasion software called Psiphon every day to get around the regime’s social media crackdown in light of recent protests.

  • Government data released Friday shows that U.S. Border Patrol has made more than 1 million arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border dating back to last October. Agents last made more than 1 million such arrests in one fiscal year in 2006, and there are almost three months left in FY 2021.

  • Pope Francis on Friday moved to place new restrictions on the use of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass, limiting where—and by whom—the more traditional Mass can be celebrated.

  • Massive flooding continued to ravage Germany and Belgium over the weekend, with the resulting death toll rising to at least 188.

  • American Collin Morikawa, 24, edged out Jordan Spieth to win the British Open on Sunday. It was Morikawa’s second major championship.

White House v. Facebook: Vaccine Edition

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto via Getty Images.)

After a barn-burning first few months, the United States’ COVID-19 vaccination effort has slowed to a limp. Fewer than 700,000 shots have been administered per day on average over the past two weeks, compared to more than 3 million back in April. That deceleration would be more palatable if we were approaching herd immunity, but per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), just over half the eligible population (56.8 percent) is fully vaccinated, and only 65.8 percent of those ages 12 and up have received at least one shot. Nearly three weeks later, the country still hasn’t reached the Biden administration’s Fourth of July goal of 70 percent of adults with at least one dose.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s some frustration about this at the White House. “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday. “Our biggest concern is that we are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalizations and, sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated.”

In response, the administration debuted a new strategy for getting vaccination numbers moving again: Laying into tech companies, which the White House clearly believes to be doing an insufficient job combating vaccine misinformation.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on Thursday labeling health misinformation “a serious threat to public health” and arguing that “misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines.” The document breaks down the unique roles individuals, educators, health professionals, journalists, tech platforms, researchers, funders, and governments have in knocking down health misinformation, but one of those groups has received much more scrutiny than the rest.

“Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users,” Murthy told reporters on Thursday. “They’ve allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation—what we call ‘disinformation’—to have extraordinary reach. They’ve designed product features, such as ‘Like’ buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally-charged content, not accurate content. And their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation.”

Biden himself was a little more blunt when asked by reporters on Friday for his opinion of Facebook. “They’re killing people,” he said.

The accusation prompted Facebook to respond on Saturday in a lengthy blog post titled “Moving Past the Finger Pointing.” (Disclosure: The Dispatch is a participant in Facebook’s fact-checking program.)

“At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,” Facebook’s Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen wrote. “The data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19. President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Facebook claims to have removed more than 18 million instances of COVID-19 misinformation and reduced the visibility of another 167 million pieces. “Since the pandemic began, more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook,” the post reads. “This includes more than 3.3 million Americans using our vaccine finder tool to find out where to get a COVID-19 vaccine and make an appointment to do so.”

Asked to elaborate on the White House’s pressure campaign on tech companies, press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.”

“We have [proposed] that they create a robust enforcement strategy that bridges their properties and provides transparency about the rules,” Psaki said, citing research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate that called out 12 distinct social media users—including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., JFK’s nephew—as being responsible for 73 percent of anti-vaccine content on Facebook.

For now, the White House is just “asking” tech platforms to monitor misinformation more closely, but the effort could quickly run into some First Amendment concerns—particularly as the administration looks to crack down on Facebook in other arenas. The Federal Trade Commission brought an antitrust lawsuit against the tech giant late last year (though a judge dismissed it a few weeks ago), and Biden signed an executive order earlier this month that was not subtle in its disdain for “dominant tech firms” that are “undermining competition and reducing innovation.”

“The administration’s language hasn’t crossed a line, but it’s treading into dangerous territory,” Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute focusing on technology and civil liberties, told The Dispatch

Plus, given the types of people the Biden administration is trying to reach, this heavy-handed approach may backfire.

“A lot of the folks that the administration most likely wants to influence might become even more distrustful of public health officials if the government is telling social media platforms what posts to take down,” Sanchez said.

“The White House’s plan to crack down on vaccine misinformation is wrong-headed,” said Harvey Silverglate, the co-founder of the pro-free-speech Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “The administration should focus, instead, on getting out the information that the federal government deems correct and important for public health. The pandemic is obviously important. But we don’t want to see, when the virus has finally been defeated, that important institutions of our democratic republic have been forever lost.”

DACA Dreaming

Federal judge Andrew Hanen ruled on Friday that the DACA program is illegal, enjoining the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from approving new applications. Current DACA recipients—of which there are more than 600,000 nationwide—will not be affected.

DACA allows people who were brought to the United States illegally as children—often referred to as “Dreamers”—to apply for “deferred action” status for two years at a time, shielding them from deportation and making them eligible for work permits and other benefits, including Social Security cards

In 2018, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit arguing that the executive branch “lacks the power to unilaterally grant unlawfully present aliens lawful presence and work authorization.” Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee in the Southern District of Texas, ruled that the 2012 DHS memorandum creating the program violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires most federal rules to go through a notice-and-comment process. Janet Napolitano—the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security secretary at the time—failed to do so in the case of DACA.

Immigration activists criticized Hanen’s ruling, but their ability to pressure the political system is limited. “Since all Hanen did was prohibit the issuance of new DACA work permits and did not invalidate the ones people already have, there’s a lot less political imperative to do something about it as there would have been otherwise,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, told The Dispatch. “It’s hard to say the sky is falling when nobody’s losing [deferred action status].”

In a statement on Friday, President Biden called the ruling “deeply disappointing” and said the Department of Justice would appeal, likely sending the case to the Fifth Circuit—and potentially the Supreme Court. Biden also urged Congress to take action on immigration “through reconciliation or other means.”

But the chances of getting an immigration bill through Congress are slim. It’s been 35 years since Congress last passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and the high-profile filibuster of the DREAM Act in 2010 was a major reason the Obama administration chose to implement DACA through the executive branch in the first place. As Harvest wrote last month, some Democrats hope to include immigration reform in their upcoming reconciliation bill, but they may have a hard time convincing the Senate parliamentarian that immigration provisions are relevant to the spending and revenue questions the budget reconciliation process is intended to address.

Alex Nowrasteh—director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute—said Friday that “legalization through reconciliation is a longshot, but this ruling just made it more likely.”

Regardless of what Congress does, Biden could try to institute a new version of DACA designed to be more resilient to inevitable legal challenges. While Biden receives low marks on immigration in general among the public, DACA itself is fairly popular. According to a 2020 Pew poll, 74 percent of Americans—including 54 percent of Republicans—support providing Dreamers with legal status.

Worth Your Time

  • For those already vaccinated and concerned about the Delta variant, it can be easy—and cathartic—to vent frustrations with those still refusing to get the shot. (And don’t get us started on media and political elites knowingly stoking disinformation for their own gain.) But as Michael Brendan Dougherty writes in National Review, scorn and condescension are likely only hardening vaccine skepticism. “Getting skeptics on board will require abandoning efforts that seem like open manipulation in defiance of the evidence. It will also mean leveling with people,” he writes. “An ad might acknowledge that indeed there aren’t long-term studies and cannot be any when we are responding to a sudden pandemic, but it could offer medical reasoning to trust that long-term health complications due to these vaccines are unlikely, given how few short-term complications there have been. A public-health campaign would give context to the information about vaccine reactions reported on the government’s own websites—such as the VAERs system—and explain how the government assesses them. In the absence of this, skeptics will take the word of whoever is willing to give this information context. … If vaccine advocates really do want vaccination uptake to increase more than they want to feel superior, they have to change course.”

  • In her latest essay, New York Times columnist Roxane Gay attempts to answer a central question: Why are people so awful online? “I don’t enjoy most social media anymore,” she confesses. “After a while, the lines blur, and it’s not at all clear what friend or foe look like, or how we as humans should interact in this place. After being on the receiving end of enough aggression, everything starts to feel like an attack. Your skin thins until you have no defenses left. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish good-faith criticism from pettiness or cruelty. It becomes harder to disinvest from pointless arguments that have nothing at all to do with you. An experience that was once charming and fun becomes stressful and largely unpleasant. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. We have all become hammers in search of nails.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sat down with Sarah and Chris on Friday’s Dispatch Podcast for a fascinating discussion on the state of the GOP. Why did Donald Trump lose? What should Republicans be focusing on ahead of 2022? Does Christie have one more presidential run in him?

  • In his Friday G-File, Jonah riffs on the Biden administration’s incessant “America is back” declarations. “For Biden, it seems to have two meanings. One is his narrow argument that we are rejoining all of the multilateral partnerships and alliances that Trump pulled out of or denigrated,” he writes. “But there’s another meaning to ‘America is back.’ It’s an unsubtle dig at Trump and a subtle bit of liberal nostalgia all at once. It’s kind of a progressive version of ‘Make America Great Again.’ It rests on the assumption that one group of liberal politicians speaks for the real America, and now that those politicians are back in power, the real America is back, too. But the problem is, there is no one real America. There are some 330 million Americans and they, collectively and individually, cannot be shoe-horned into a single vision regardless of what labels you yoke to the effort.”

  • David’s Sunday French Press was written in response to yet another example of a Christian leader failing to respond adequately to sexual abuse. “It’s time for the disparate elements of a disorganized church to rally to a common cause,” he argues. “It’s time for that same disorganized church to apply the common lessons of all too many similar scandals to create systems of accountability that leave abusers nowhere to hide. It’s time to recognize that human frailty leads to human failure, and to enact policies and processes that put a fence around our own weakness.”

  • Thomas Joscelyn’s latest Vital Interests (🔒) looks at the Iranian regime’s recent attempts to kidnap Masih Alinejad—a dissident and human rights activist—on American soil. “One can imagine the spectacle that would have occurred had Alinejad gone missing from her Brooklyn home in the middle of the night,” he writes. “It says much about how the Iranian regime views the U.S. that it did not really fear any reprisals, or even a modest disruption in the nuclear negotiations.”

  • On the site today, Chris Stirewalt examines how House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s quest for the speaker’s gavel might imperil Republicans’ chance to retake the House, and James C. Capretta takes a deep dive into how to address Medicare’s coming insolvency.

Let Us Know

One of your Morning Dispatchers was elated last night when news broke that Kanye West’s next album is on the way, potentially as early as this week (though he’s burned us all before).

Is there a band or musician that can get you to stay up until midnight waiting for new music to drop?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).