The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) played a direct role in policing permissible speech on social media throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, according to confidential emails. Here are the the Facebook COVID files: emails that reveal the CDC’s role in silencing COVID-19 dissent.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actively participated in controlling what could be said on social media. Confidential emails obtained by Reason demonstrate that Facebook moderators frequently communicated with the CDC and consistently sought approval from government health officials for statements regarding the virus, mitigation strategies such as masks, and vaccines.
To gain a deeper understanding of the government’s attempts to limit freedom of speech during the pandemic and if they went against the First Amendment, readers can refer to Reason’s March 2023 feature article on the repercussions of these emails. The article also includes images of the emails in question.
After Elon Musk took over Twitter, he allowed a number of independent journalists to review the company’s prior communications with the FBI, the CDC, the White House, and other government officials. These disclosures, which are now referred to as the Twitter Files, show that government officials exerted significant pressure on Twitter to limit the dissemination of alleged misinformation related to elections, Hunter Biden, and COVID-19.
The Facebook Files, which were made available as a result of Missouri’s lawsuit against the Biden administration, demonstrate that the CDC exerted a significant amount of control over what users were permitted to talk about on Meta’s platforms: Facebook and Instagram.
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The emails indicate that the CDC closely monitored Meta’s moderation techniques and frequently instructed the company on what actions it should take.
New emails leaked on June 3, which were shown in a legal proceeding against the U.S. government, show that the CDC gave Facebook misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
For example, in May 2021, CDC officials started regularly reviewing statements about COVID-19 vaccines that were posted on Facebook, leaving it to the federal government to decide which claims were truthful.
Facebook’s moderators indicate that some of the statements “would already be violating” – a clear implication that the CDC’s judgment on other statements would play a critical role in determining whether the platform would limit such content. Facebook actively participated in this process; moderators often expressed gratitude to the CDC for its “help in debunking”.
Statements that were reviewed by the CDC included whether “COVID-19 is man-made”. The CDC informed Facebook that it was “theoretically possible, but extremely unlikely.”
For an extended period, Meta had a policy of forbidding users from suggesting that the pandemic could have originated from a laboratory leak. The platform changed this policy around the same time as the email correspondence mentioned above.
By July 2021, the CDC was not only determining which claims it believed were false, but also whether they could “cause harm”.
In November, the Food and Drug Administration approved the emergency use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children. Meta excitedly informed the CDC that it would remove false statements – “i.e. the COVID vaccine is not safe for kids” – from Facebook and Instagram. Meta also sent the CDC a list of new statements about vaccines and inquired whether the government believed they could “contribute to vaccine refusals.”
This designation, according to the CDC, was appropriate for all such claims.
It is crucial to consider the consequences. Meta delegated the CDC with the practical authority to monitor COVID-19 misinformation on its platforms; the CDC held the view that nearly any false statement could lead to vaccine reluctance and cause negative consequences. This led to a widespread censorship on Facebook and Instagram, at the implicit request of the federal government.
Meta frequently provided the CDC with lists of pandemic-related subjects that had become popular, seeking direction on how to address them. And the CDC instructed Meta “to be on the lookout” for misinformation resulting from specific alleged misunderstandings.
Meta also kept the CDC informed of any negative comments about Anthony Fauci, who is the White House’s COVID-19 advisor and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). One email alerted the CDC that Facebook users were making fun of Fauci for altering his stance on masking and double masking. The CDC responded that this information was “very helpful”.
If the language used in Meta’s communication appears too cordial, it’s worth mentioning that Meta’s employees considered government employees at the CDC as their “colleagues”. In one email, Meta talked about giving said partners access to a “reporting channel” for COVID-19 false information. The list of people with access included CDC staff, as well as employees of Reingold, a communications company that provides guidance to government health agencies.
These are just a few examples of the communications exchanged between the CDC and Meta. They also had regular meetings. The CDC was not the only branch of the federal government involved in this endeavor, of course: White House staff also criticized Meta for not removing alleged false information quickly enough. President Joe Biden himself accused Facebook of “killing people” in July 2021.
One might question whether these criticisms, from Biden and other members of his administration, which included the explicit threat of regulatory repercussions if requests for increased censorship were not fulfilled, had an impact on Meta’s decision to delegate COVID-19 content moderation to the CDC.