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Biden White House asked Facebook to tweak algorithm to push mainstream over conservative news: memo

New memos obtained by Congress Congress show White House wanted the public to see Wall Street Journal and New York Times stories instead of those from The Daily Wire and Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren.

Published: August 3, 2023 12:29am

Updated: August 3, 2023 9:09am

The Biden White House inquired in meetings with Facebook executives asking whether Facebook could tweak its algorithm to showcase stories from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal over content posted by "polarizing" conservative journalists and commentators in early 2021, according to meeting notes the social media firm turned over to Congress that are alarming some constitutional lawyers. The alleged focus of the meetings was to assist the administration while it struggled to combat COVID vaccine hesitancy.

The memos, reviewed by Just the News, chronicle a series of meetings between White House digital director Rob Flaherty and executives from Facebook, now known as Meta, in spring 2021 as the first questions about the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccine began surging on social media.

The memos delivered recently under subpoena to the House Judiciary Committee make clear the White House was actively interacting with Facebook, and sometimes pressuring the social media giant to moderate content in a way that would encourage more Americans to get inoculations.

President Joe Biden would eventually mandate such shots for many Americans, though he was reversed by the courts and Congress.

On April 14, 2021, for instance, the White House's Flaherty asked Facebook whether it could promote The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal over The Daily Wire and Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren, according to Facebook meeting documents obtained by Just the News.

Flaherty asked Facebook employees “If you were to change the algorithm so that people were more likely to see NYT, WSJ, any authoritative news source over Daily Wire, Tomi Lahren, polarizing people. You wouldn’t have a mechanism to check the material impact?” according to Facebook's typewritten notes from the meeting.

Lahren had publicly announced she was choosing to skip taking the vaccine, and Daily Wire filed one of the landmark lawsuits challenge Biden's mandate that companies force their employees to get the shots as a term of keeping their jobs.

Prior to Flaherty’s question, he discussed COVID vaccine hesitancy with Facebook employees during the meeting, asking what the company was doing about it.

“We have to explain to President, Ron, people, why there is misinfo on the internet, bigger problem than FB,” Flaherty was quoted as saying. “Where issues are, what interventions are, how well they are working, for products, want to engage in things that you know to be effective. I don’t even care about specific methodology, you have better, richer data than we’ll ever have.

“What are the things driving hesitancy on your platform? What is it? How big is the problem? When you are intervening, how are you measuring success?” Flaherty was quoted as asking.

Flaherty is cited in the notes as asking the questions “because candidly there is not a lot of trust towards FB" and the Biden White House wanted to know whether the platform was "finding things that are effective that you aren’t doing” to combat resistance to the vaccines.

A Facebook employee in the meeting is quoted as explaining the platform's strategy on censorship and moderation, specifically citing Lahren's refusal to get the vaccine as an example.

“In terms of interventions, know that there are groups that are hot spots – mandatory post approvals – admins have to approve posts. If violating content approved, gives the group a strike. I’m uncovering new examples on comments – public figures on comments might be contributing more. Tomi Lahren posted on how she’s not getting the vaccine. Even with comment reduction, still struggling if we reduce comments from public figures, Tomi Lahren makes a post," the notes quoted the Facebook executive as saying.

Later, a Facebook employee explained that they “have hard policy constraints – things like Tomi Lahren’s post. Just want to be clear we haven’t declared victory,” the notes added.

Lahren told Just the News on Wednesday night she was disturbed but not surprised by the Biden White House's interest in her posts on Facebook.

“The fact that I’ve been living rent free in Biden’s head is flattering," she said. "But the fact his team would go to such great lengths to silence me for simply saying I won’t personally get the COVID vaccine is disturbing to say the least. Free speech is on its last leg under Joe Biden.”

Ben Shapiro, editor emeritus at The Daily Wire, also responded on Wednesday, telling Just the Newsthat his news outlet was exploring legal options.

"The Biden White House's pressure on Facebook to target Daily Wire for traffic reduction is an obvious, disgusting, and predictable First Amendment violation," Shapiro said. "Government action is still government action even when the government is cudgeling private corporations to do the dirty work of censorship.

"We sued the Biden administration to stop the OSHA vaccine mandate, and we're not afraid of taking them to court again to preserve free speech rights. We're looking into all available remedies as we speak," he added.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan said last week in a long thread on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that evidence his committee is assembling showed the Biden White House was pressuring Facebook to change moderation policies to address vaccine hesitancy in a way that threatened free speech.

"Never-before-released internal documents subpoenaed by the Judiciary Committee PROVE that Facebook and Instagram censored posts and changed their content moderation policies because of unconstitutional pressure from the Biden White House," Jordan tweeted.

"During the first half of 2021, social media companies like Facebook faced tremendous pressure from the Biden White House—both publicly and privately—to crack down on alleged ‘misinformation,’" he continued. "In April 2021, a Facebook employee circulated an email for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, writing: ‘We are facing continued pressure from external stakeholders, including the [Biden] White House’ to remove posts."

Constitutional law professors denounced the White House’s actions outlined in the new memos obtained by Just the News, saying they smacked of censorship and raised serious First Amendment issues.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told Just the News on Wednesday, “This is why I have asked Congress to pass a law barring federal employees from engaging in censorship and targeting of citizens. Agencies have a right to speak in their own voices. Instead, the Biden Administration sought to engage in what I have called ‘censorship through surrogate.’ This is part of that pattern."

Normally, private companies cannot be held accountable for First Amendment violations, however the law provides an exception when a private entity is acting "under color of law." University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds told Just the News on Wednesday that the First Amendment issue is when the “government is asking people to censor speech, their action is attributable to the government, so both they and the government can be sued.”

He believes that The Daily Wire and Lahren could “and probably should” sue the federal government and Facebook over the censorship.

While Reynolds noted that it is “expensive to sue the government and Facebook,” both entities “have a lot of money,” so if The Daily Wire and Lahren win, then it’s “not bad.” However, he added that it’s “harder to get relief against the government than companies.”

“By working with the government, Facebook exposed themselves to liability,” Reynolds said, noting that they do not “share sovereign immunity” with the government and will “probably very much regret it.”

The White House and Meta, which owns Facebook, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

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