White House v. Facebook

Who truly holds the cards here?

The Biden administration fell short of its goal to have 70% of US adults with at least one dose of the COVID vaccine by July 4th, a fact that seems to have caused a bit of embarrassment in the White House. After getting off to a hot start earlier in the year, when vaccines became available to anyone who wished to have one, the number of doses administered flatted and then decreased as the initial demand was met. As of this writing, the percentage of fully vaccinated adults stands at 48.9%, which is still admirable if not where the federal government would like that number to be. Instead of looking for new ways to encourage adults to get vaccinated, the Biden team decided to look for a scapegoat.

Enter social media platforms, particularly Facebook. 

This past week has seen the Biden administration coming out strong against what they view as misinformation on social media platforms that is discouraging people from getting vaccinated. From White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki admitting that federal government employees are looking for and flagging Facebook posts spreading disinformation about the COVID vaccine, to calling for social media companies to coordinate with each other on banning individuals from their platforms, to Biden claiming that Facebook is “killing people” by not removing anti-vaccination content it has been a full court press. 

There is a discussion to be had about the federal government monitoring and flagging content using what appears to be the same methods available to you and me and what that means going forward in terms of content moderation, and it is certainly worth having. Before we arrive there, however, a myth needs to be dispelled — the myth that social media companies are more powerful than the federal government. They are not, and the federal government just proved it unequivocally. 

Forget the examples about standing armies and police forces and the physical harm the federal government can inflict on an individual that social media platforms cannot. Facebook cannot send out a press secretary to soft-peddle threats to the federal government’s existence or tell it how to conduct its business. Google can’t threaten legislation to break up Big Government. Twitter can’t file an antitrust lawsuit against the federal government. Amazon can’t demand that Elizabeth Warren show up to a board meeting and then grill her for hours about how she plans to break the company up. 

There are two kinds of power — soft power and hard power. Social media platforms have soft power; they can kick someone off their platform and deny that person access to the hundreds of millions of people who use that platform. One can argue that the power social media platforms have in that sense is troublesome, but to compare it to what the government can do to them is absurd. The power imbalance here is so stark that to deny is ludicrous, especially when politicians on both sides of the aisle have no issue stating publicly that they would like to legally neuter or destroy platforms over what content they choose to allow. 

We are in a very weird and disconcerting place right now in the relationship between social media and the federal government but don’t ever kid yourself about who has the upper hand. It’s worth remembering the immense pressure the government has brought to bear on these platforms when you formulate your criticism of them — like the rest of us, they’re trying to conduct their business with the least amount of government interaction possible, and any conversation that ignores the fact that social media platforms are essentially being given no choice but to play along with the federal government misses the real issue at play.