White House official demanded Facebook squelch 'general skepticism' of vaccines

Jill Biden 'STFU' clip, WhatsApp conversations also targeted by White House censorship demands.
Jill Biden reads to children

The Biden White House wasn't just concerned about purported COVID-19 misinformation when in its first year it cajoled and argued with tech platforms to censor, throttle and label content — even in private messaging apps.

It was alarmed that people might believe a child told First Lady Jill Biden to "shut the f*** up" — or simply enjoy the alteration of a C-SPAN clip.

The communications between federal officials and platforms are the latest revealed in discovery in the First Amendment lawsuit against the feds by Louisiana and Missouri attorneys general and the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which is representing censored social media users including epidemiologists Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya.

NCLA attorney Jenin Younes and her client Aaron Kheriaty, fired by the University of California Davis for refusing COVID vaccination based on natural immunity, shared some of the documents in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Sunday night. 

Younes provided Just the News other, as-yet unpublished, email threads, including the "STFU" back-and-forth, which resembles the administration's irritation at accounts parodying COVID adviser Anthony Fauci.

Twitter apparently stood firm against White House demands to remove or "put a label" on the altered Jill Biden clip, in which she reads to children in the White House.

"Did that kid just yell 'STFU'?" Twitter user "Art TakingBack" wrote Nov. 29, 2021. "Pretty sure it's fake but funny," he tweeted a minute later in the same thread, which was live for at least 10 days. Archives show the account was suspended last fall.

Deputy Director of Digital Strategy Christian Tom brought the thread to Twitter's attention the next day and got a response in six minutes, showing the priority platforms give censorship requests from federal officials. 

But the unidentified executive said the altered clip didn't "cause harm or impact public safety" as required for action under its "manipulated media" policy. (Non-government names are redacted in all documents.)

At this point, Tom brought in Michael LaRosa, the First Lady's press secretary. The officials pointed to Twitter policy language saying it would "likely" remove altered and deceptively shared tweets even with no harm.

The dispute dragged into mid-December. Even though the incident is "not as much in the public eye right now ... it's really important to us that this is addressed," in part to set "a precedent for other moments," Tom wrote. Twitter reiterated the matter was closed because of the "low risk" of associated harm.

Tom wouldn't let it go, adding his boss Rob Flaherty to the thread. "[T]his all reads to me," Flaherty wrote, "like you all are bending over backwards to say that this isn't causing confusion on public issues" despite an Associated Press fact-check of the clip. The Twitter executive invited Flaherty to call.

Flaherty's messages are notable for recurring overt hostility and scolding toward the tech executives on the receiving end. 

When he had trouble getting an impersonation of Biden's granddaughter Finnegan removed from Twitter in February 2021, Flaherty told an executive it was "ridiculous" he had to provide identification and demanded removal "immediately." Twitter responded that the fault lay with the White House IT department.

It told Flaherty to create an authorized list of White House staff for Twitter's Partner Support Portal, the subject of a phone call with Tom days earlier. Twitter asked him to create a "streamlined" reporting process, noting it received queries from four White House staff in one day.

Flaherty had more success pressuring Facebook to throttle "borderline content" that does not violate its policies but feeds COVID vaccine hesitancy, such as personal stories and fears of adverse events. 

Under a barrage of accusations from Flaherty, who repeatedly claimed he wasn't playing "gotcha" with the platform, Facebook agreed March 21, 2021 to limit the spread of "often-true content" that undermines vaccine confidence by shutting down pages and groups that are "disproportionately promoting this sensationalized content."

That email also alluded to discussions with Andy Slavitt, senior adviser on President Biden's COVID response team, about Facebook's WhatsApp. The Facebook executive said the messaging app already has "forward limits and labels" to reduce viral spread, pointing to an April 2020 change that reduced repeatedly forwarded messages by 70%.

Flaherty wasn't impressed by these changes. The next day he told Facebook the bigger problem was "general skepticism" rather than far-out claims about microchips in vaccines and asked how it was measuring the effect of its interventions. 

He also questioned how Facebook could know its WhatsApp interventions, including promotion of purportedly reliable COVID information, led to "reduction of harm," given the private nature of the messages. Flaherty cited the app's heavy use among immigrants and "communities of color."

The executive wrote a lengthy April 9 response on WhatsApp specifically, pointing to its many partnerships with the World Health Organization, governments and fact-checking groups to promote official COVID narratives on the app. It halts COVID misinformation through "mass marketing or scam" bans.

Flaherty responded that he still hasn't received a "good, empirical answer" about its success in reducing "vaccine-skeptical content" to the "vaccine fence sitters."

Facebook only made an "algorithmic shift" on election-related information "after an election that you helped increase skepticism in, and an insurrection which was plotted, in large part, on your platform," he alleged. "And then you turned it back off." Flaherty demanded "assurances" that Facebook would not do the same for vaccine skepticism.

In other emails, Flaherty demanded an explanation for Facebook not throttling posts by conservative personalities Tucker Carlson and Tomi Lahren questioning COVID vaccines and "actively promoting anti-vaccine pages in [Instagram] search" despite its aggressive promotion of official narratives. The executive said those Instagram accounts had been removed.

Flaherty also shared a memo "circulating around" the White House in late April 2021 that accuses Facebook of "failure to monitor events" on COVID disinformation or keep up with "coded language" used to evade COVID policing and "non-English" disinformation.

Tom and Flaherty didn't respond to requests for comment on the communications exposing their censorship demands.