Is COVID Misinformation Killing People? (with Facebook’s Nick Clegg)
Andy talks with Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs, about one of the most important issues out there: Facebook, social media, COVID-19 and misinformation. After President Biden said Facebook is “killing people” with COVID misinformation, Andy and Nick discuss what Facebook says its obligation is with regard to misinformation, what they’re doing to combat it, and whether it’s enough.
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavitt. Check out In the Bubble’s Twitter account @inthebubblepod.
Follow Nick Clegg on Twitter @nickclegg.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Here’s the latest on President Biden’s Facebook comments: https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/19/biden-facebook-vaccine-misinformation-500148
- Read Facebook’s response to the President’s initial comments: https://about.fb.com/news/2021/07/support-for-covid-19-vaccines-is-high-on-facebook-and-growing/
- Check out this post from Nick about what Facebook is doing to combat COVID-19 misinformation: https://about.fb.com/news/2020/03/combating-covid-19-misinformation/
- Read about Nick’s role in banning President Trump from Facebook: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/technology/facebook-trump-nick-clegg.html
- Learn more about the study Jen Psaki cited in a recent White House press briefing: https://www.npr.org/2021/05/13/996570855/disinformation-dozen-test-facebooks-twitters-ability-to-curb-vaccine-hoaxes
- Find a COVID-19 vaccine site near you: https://www.vaccines.gov/
- Order Andy’s book, Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250770165
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Andy Slavitt, Nick Clegg
Andy Slavitt 00:38
Welcome to IN THE BUBBLE. I’m your host, Andy Slavitt. Well put in your seat belt to and get the popcorn pops, dial in those ear phones. Just sit back. Today’s show is about misinformation. And the perpetuators of it. And it features my interview with Nick Clegg from Facebook. Tell You About Nick in a second. As we were recording the episode, the Surgeon General released a new report calling out misinformation as a public health hazard. Here we are doing our episode on misinformation. Imagine that? And as one of the culprits for why so many are refusing to get vaccinated. Facebook gets called out by name. And then well, you just heard what happened. President Biden on Friday referred to Facebook, one of the largest and certainly most influential companies in the world, as being responsible for killing people basically holding them accountable for purveying false information.
The same way, the decades ago, I think cigarette companies and then auto companies were held to account for creating unsafe products. Naturally, this did not make Facebook happy. And it is a pretty bold charge and a pretty bold use of language in describing it. So over the weekend, Facebook launched a series of counter attacks and press releases that push back pretty hard against the administration. And I think by the time we got into the middle of the weekend, things were worse, not better. And things are heating up. I was on the phone, doing some shuttle diplomacy, both with Facebook with Nick, who you’re going to hear from shortly. And with the administration about how to resolve what has become clearly a bigger and bigger problem for society and a bigger bigger problem as part of this pandemic. So you can hear directly from Facebook, in this exclusive interview.
Andy Slavitt 02:42
We were fortunate that Facebook is coming on because they are not talking to the media any longer trying not to add fuel to the fire with their response to the administration. It’s really only because I know Nick, and we’ve had this previously recorded conversation on this very topic that you’ll even be able to hear it. Did interviews with Nick Clegg, as I said, if you’ve heard his name before, he was the deputy prime minister in the United Kingdom for seven years. Until recently, before becoming a top executive at Facebook. Nick is Facebook’s Vice President for global affairs. You’ll hear why Zuckerberg hired him, as you listen in to this interview. So let me tell you a few things about this interview. First of all, this is not a gotcha interview, I tried to be more respectful for that, to begin with.
Nick is of course respectful back. And I think that allows us to have a reasonable conversation. I’m also just not sure that I’m a good enough interviewer to do a gotcha interview if I wanted to. But it’s just not in my nature. My goal in this interview was simply to try to keep Nick away from his talking points and having a real conversation. And the best way to do that, in my experience, is to allow people to be heard, to feel heard. And I think they get very uncomfortable and feel very much like they have to force their points out if you don’t give them that opportunity. And of course, I think in that opportunity is exactly what will allow all of you out there listening to really try to understand where they’re coming from their point of view, and you can of course evaluate for yourselves.
Andy Slavitt 04:25
And I think that works most of the time. I think most of the time we were having a real conversation, the kind of conversation when you’re talking over one another. disagreeing has its tense moments and has its courteous moments, but for the most part, I think we did okay, I think you’ll notice there are a couple times when he pulls out notes, and sounds like he’s really talking points. Because of this, I will give you my notes at the end so you can get a sense of what I was thinking. I really let Nick just talk through those moments. During the course of the interview, you’re going to hear him refer to arguments that he and I had. He’s referring to my time in the White House, where I was charged with pushing organizations like Facebook from spewing misinformation.
We had our challenges; we refer to those challenges. We work together respectfully. You’ll hear that in the dialogue. But there’s no question that we were really at opposing sides and looking at this issue much of the time. The other thing is we cut about 30 minutes from this episode. So it will sound like we are beginning the conversation midstream. Because we were really warming up by talking about other things, how we got to Facebook. Why is it Facebook? Why Facebook has people like him there. And we left in the most important things on the topic of misinformation. But there are certainly parts of the episode there. And I think greater conversation about the global situation in Europe and in the UK, if you want to hear that subscribers can have access to the uncut version. So what’s the case against Facebook?
Andy Slavitt 06:10
You know, the case again, Facebook is that most of the time when people who are seeking information about a vaccine if they’re unvaccinated are getting exposed to misinformation, that misinformation is believed and that Facebook doesn’t do enough to clean it up. You know, there are very prominent examples I referred to a couple of them on a call, the White House has relayed to me that more than half of the vaccine related information that’s on Facebook is negative to vaccines. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should be taken down or not. I think that’s for you to judge after listening to Nick, it’s not always a clear case. But you know, the most prominent one is from someone named Candace Owens, who I’m sure more people I know who she is than I do have, of course, the name. And she has a very prominent post on Facebook with 35,000 repost, basically, implying that the Biden administration is hiding the number of deaths from the vaccine.
Now really interesting and appropriate type of misinformation to talk about because there’s certainly nothing in what she said, that directly says that people are dying from the vaccine. what she is saying is that the Biden administration is not sharing the information that exists, that they’re hiding information about how many people are dying. And of course, the implication connotation is quite strong. But if you are going to be putting up with misinformation, and allowing it to stick, it’s certainly a lot more likely that you’ll get your information to stay and get it allow it to be promoted. When you have these sort of slightly more subtle references. And, you know, if you are someone who’s looking to make a decision about a vaccine, that’s the kind of information you’re much more likely to see, than if you’re someone like me, or someone who is vaccinated or not concerned about misinformation, that hunting for rumors, you know, you’re unlikely to see that information.
Andy Slavitt 08:17
And so the way these algorithms work there, they’re hidden from view. And, of course, the premise that people’s concern is that that’s exactly Facebook’s business model, they will serve up using an algorithm all the wrong information to all the wrong people at exactly the wrong time. And that they’re really not gonna stop doing that. So you will hear Nick and I talk a little bit about how Facebook thinks about this, a little bit more about what they’re doing about it. And let us jump into that. The notion that afterwards, I’m going to spend a few minutes if you really want to stick around. I will tell you about where this where I think this interview really lands. And I will tell you about my first conversation in the White House with Facebook, how that proved to be a premonition of sorts. And what’s happened since then. So without further ado, let me play the interview with Nick Clegg.
Maybe just as a side note with a general question is how do you think about the obligation of Facebook when it comes to helping people get truthful information about a simple, let’s take a very simple example whether or not they should get vaccinated and what the truths and mysteries might be that are out there?
I mean, the way we try and discharge our responsibilities and you and I, you’re quite right, we did have some very candid conversations, where sometimes we saw eye to eye and sometimes we didn’t, but the way that the company is approaching our responsibility as the world goes through this extraordinary, you know, pandemic it’ll be with us for a long time is based on four strategies. Firstly, just to inform people about COVID. And, you know, because empowering them with the right information of all the most effective things that, you know, that we can do. And so we’ve delivered, you know, like over 20 billion, in what we call impressions, that’s ads and informative posts that you know, you know, get people access to authority of information. And, you know, for instance, some of the posts that we’ve done on our MythBusters, the MythBusters, sort of stuff we’ve done about COVID.
Nick Clegg 10:33
We found that’s lifted, belief in the factor on the vaccine by over 3% in a number of countries that we’ve surveyed. Second thing we do is we just help people to get vaccinated. And actually something which people aren’t aware of in the US because, US doesn’t people don’t use WhatsApp as much as they do in other parts of the world. But just to give you an example of the scale of this, I mean, WhatsApp has conveyed 4 billion, 4 billion messages to help people get to that. I mean, I’ll give you some of the just the illustrations in Buenos Aires alone, the WhatsApp bots have helped book 1 million vaccine appointments, about 75% of all appointments booked in Uruguay have been booked through WhatsApp. In Indonesia, I think about 40% of all healthcare, worker appointments, we get that, you know, vaccines have been through WhatsApp. So that’s a second big thing.
The third big thing is just, it just normalize vaccinations, it’s just to make people feel that it’s kind of more normal to get vaccinate, because we know that social, if you know your friends, do it your family do it, you do it as well, it’s we all know that you and I talked about this, the way to get people to vaccinate if they’re hesitant is not to have people lecturing them from on high, but it’s people they know people they feel familiar with people from their community, influences, you know, we work with a lot of influencers from Dolly Parton, so, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger to communicate with people they can reach through others cart, and around 50% of people in the US on Facebook have already, for instance, seen someone use the, you know, the profile frames that we’ve introduced, these are about 14 million, you know, frames have been used at around the world where people change their profile.
Nick Clegg 12:10
And then the final thing is just working with, with health organizations and with governments and health ministries, about 90% of health ministries that we’ve approached, have used a lot of our tools. So something you and I talked about, we now run with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland, the largest survey of its kind, where he surveyed through Facebook, people, you know, their symptoms, vaccination rates, and so on with about 60 million responses, more than 170,000 responses every day across 200 countries, and this is producing this huge database about where is vaccination going well, how is the hesitation rising or falling? So those are some of the ways that we use Facebook. And I think some of the evidence is that this is kind of working. I mean, since January, vaccine acceptance in the US from the daily survey that we do is actually increased by about 10 to 15 percentage points.
And some of the populations that had the lowest acceptance in January have seen the biggest increases, there’s a hell of a way to go. And we’re nowhere near you know, the end of this pandemic globally. But I think and we have to constantly learn, we’re not, we’re a social media company. You know, I’m an ex-politician. I haven’t met the epidemiologist, right? So that’s why we have to work with experts, you know, whether it’s the who, or the CDC, or I know Hyde Larson at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that, you know, she’s a kind of expert we work with. So we work hand in glove with them, and we’re constantly changing and iterating. When we say we’ve got it wrong, we try and get it right, but we’ve got it, you know, we’re over enforced or under enforced, we adjust. It’s a journey. But I hope that’s the kind of useful thumbnail sketch of what we’re trying to do.
No, it’s really helpful for people to hear how you think about it. And by the way, we had Heidi on the show. Not that long ago. She’s a wealth of knowledge. Here’s a common set of facts in terms of what we’re here. We had Molly Brodie; I don’t know if you know her. She was on the show on Monday. She’s from the Kaiser Family Foundation. She’s done a lot of tracking research and data. And everybody’s focused now on who are these unvaccinated people? Why aren’t they getting vaccinated? And people who are vaccinated are like, what can we do to convince these people to get vaccinated to which people are like, I don’t want you to convince me, you know, as you said, people have to go through their own journey and understanding and so we’re trying to help people understand some of the data let me just share with you the top line data that she shared with us.
So two thirds of Americans, this is all US based. Two thirds of Americans adults, been vaccinated. of the remaining two thirds of those people are pretty hard, pretty dead set against getting vaccinated, and the other third are still open minded. And on the fence, she also shared something very interesting. They tracked people who said last January whether they would or wouldn’t get vaccinated overnight. The percent of people in January who said they would get vaccinated indeed get vaccinated of the people who said they deadest would not get vaccinated. 25% ended up getting vaccinated, which I thought was interesting and quite positive. She interpreted it negatively and 75% didn’t. But the fact that 25% of people said I can’t be moved, and removed, I thought was interesting. And then of the people that said, they were in the middle, and might or might not, about 54% of those people got vaccinated.
So more than half still haven’t, which I think is opportunity. I don’t credit the White House, I don’t credit Facebook, I don’t credit, anything here. So much as I credit the quality of capability of the vaccines, right? I mean, it you know, we have something that works 300 400 million, let alone several billion times in a row. And it’s very well tolerated. People were paying attention. And I think they move people off the fence. And you know, people like Facebook and others. Hopefully people got as more of a clear story as that was happening. But here’s what she said next, if you dig into the people who are not vaccinated, there are five myths, which she said, two thirds of the people that aren’t vaccinated believe at least one of these number one, that you could get COVID-19 from the vaccine. Number two, that the vaccine contains fetal cells. Number three, that the vaccine causes infertility. Number four, is that it will change your DNA. And number five is if you’ve had COVID, you don’t need to get vaccinated.
Andy Slavitt 16:29
So those five statements which, you know, are can either be presented to people as misinformation, i.e., this is what somebody thinks, honestly, and passes it along. Or this is what somebody purposely wants to tell you to persuade you not to get vaccinated even it’s not true. Now, I imagine you have to battle those myths. And you talked about myths on your site. Most of the people who have decided that to get vaccinated say their number one source of information is social media. Not necessarily Facebook, specifically, but social media in general. So how do you approach when you see you know, any one of these five things? What’s kind of Facebook’s philosophy or attitude?
Yeah, so the philosophy is we remove and I need to check. I think since the beginning of the pandemic, we removed around like 18 million posts, that’s a huge number. And we’ve demoted so you know, massively kind of degraded, if you like, on people’s newsfeed, you have far larger number 167 million posts, where fact checkers have found them to be kind of misleading the stuff that we removed. So what’s the distinction between removing and demotion or demotion and labeling? The distinction is where we think there’s a clear harm that if you believe what you’re being told, there’ll be kind of imminent real world physical harm, we remove it. And that line, by the way, changes all the time with the science. So just today, sort of confirmed because this is what we’ve been told by experts. That we’re not going to remove claims that COVID is not airborne, that the vaccine causes Alzheimer’s, or prion disease or Bell’s palsy, or erectile dysfunctions and magnetism.
We also move now as of today that you know the vaccine that it can cause secondary side effects to other people, or it’s not safe for menstruating women. And that face masks contain harmful nano worms and particles. Now, you might say, Yeah, but I like you should never, you know, that should have been removed before. There are other things, for instance, which we will label and demote, which previously, we might have removed. So for instance, the claims that COVID is painted or that it was predicted, or there’s not a new disease. But the distinction between those two, those two baskets, if you like, just on those illustrations, illustrations right off today, is we think the first group of claims that I, you know, stood out to you that we’re now removing, and this is what we’ve been told by the experts just you know, it just runs the risk of real-world harm where the others are, they might be wrong, they might be misleading. But they’re not, you know, and we can’t cleanse the internet, if you know anything, just people just talking nonsense, or satire or hyperbole. That’s crazy. We can’t do that.
But we can go after the stuff where we’ve been clearly advised that this will lead to real world harm. So it’s the kind of harm principle is the one that we use, as we do in across the board? And, look, it’s I think the difficulty thing for us as a social media company, is that wherever we draw the line, we find that some people say you’re not drawing the line strictly enough other saying you’re taking down too much content, right, particularly in the US it’s kind of it’s kind of unique in the US almost the way that this has become a polarized political things. You know, people on the left say that social media doesn’t take enough action. People in the right say that they’re being censored. And of course, the whole attitude towards vaccination footmen mask wearing has become a politicized thing.
Who’s right the canceled culture people or the protectors?
Well, we just try and we try and be led by the science we try to be led by the kind of people who actually know what they’re talking about. But here’s the thing where it gets difficult. So like, you know, it’s not us it’s government’s it’s the FDA, it’s the CDC, it’s the WHO, who starts to say, look, hang on, you know, we’re going to suspend this vaccine because of concerns about heart inflammation, or what was the thing I saw the other day, just a couple of days. The FDA pronouncing on to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which has something to do with the immune system about the J&J vaccine. Here in the UK and EU, there’s concerns about some vaccines and very small numbers of cases of heart inflammation. People read that we don’t invent that that’s that we can’t, we can’t say people can’t say the right things, because it’s the authorities themselves saying that, and that does, of course, that leads to hesitancy.
Andy Slavitt 20:47
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s like, how does one become responsible for context? Because, if someone, if one in a million people gets a really bad reaction to something, but someone says, I know somebody who got this really bad reaction, and they don’t mention, it’s one in a million, right? And then someone reads that, you know, who’s really accountable for saying, No, no, if you see this fact, you must also see that fact. You know, is there a way to think about that conundrum?
Yeah, I mean, and at the end of the day, what we can do a great, great scale, and with great precision, is link people, which we do if I mean, I think over 2 billion people who visited the, you know, the Facebook COVID information, same time, it’s a massive scale now, we link people to a repository of authoritative information, all that context can be provided. So we can we can be a go between, if you like, to the authorities who people will believe in, and as I said, so early. I’m actually I think, I read actually, you’re talking about your previous interviewee that the that some of the evidence from the Kaiser Family Foundation, this is where social media plays such a big role. I think a positive role, did find that for those, I think it’s like 1 in 5 US adults who now are vaccinated having expressed hesitancy at the beginning of the year. I think I’m right in saying that the Kaiser Family Foundation evidence said that, a lot of that those people that 1/5 did so because family and friends were also getting vaccinated.
Nick Clegg 22:19
It’s just amazing. Just I mean, it might sound trite, you wouldn’t believe how powerful we have found that shape, you know, people being changing their profile frames on social media, what a powerful signal that sends to other people to say, oh, maybe I can do it then. And that’s the kind of area where, where research is really valuable. And we’ve identified roughly speaking, three parts of kind of US society where hesitancy seems to be or where you have lower than average vaccination rates, I’m not sure if they’re consistent with your understanding, firstly, in rural and semi-rural parts of the country, secondly, young adults to 18 to 34. And then people living, you know, in, you know, underprivileged areas, areas, which we define, as what the CDC tell us are, you know, on the social vulnerability index. And that’s, again, an area where I think social media can read because we can target areas like that we can work with the CDC, we can work with, you know, with the government and others, to make sure that the right messages in the right languages, including Spanish, which is why everything we do is completely available in Spanish as well is available in precisely those areas.
Andy Slavitt 23:30
It’s interesting, one of the things that I’ve feared over the last two weeks, and it’s been a new feeling is that there is some political advantage to some people who feel like it’s in their interest to spread anti-vaccine information. And maybe in parallel to what we saw with masks, and I wasn’t feeling that before.
Nick Clegg 24:23
I think it’s a crying shame. This has become politicized.
And you’re more politically sophisticated than I am but I would have a little bit to populism and remind people that these aren’t leaders leading people, these are leaders taking the constant pulse of this sort of rebellious kind of set of supporters and egging them on. And I think the thing that I learned was that if you really want to influence people not to get vaccinated, you don’t come out and say I’m anti-vaccine, and you don’t come out and expressly say Bill Gates is gonna put a microchip in you, you say, gee, I’m not anti-vaccine, but boy, and you tell some story, which sounds credible, and plants doubts, and makes it very difficult for Facebook’s algorithms, if it’s on Facebook, to say, gee, that’s a problematic statement. Yeah. And in other words, people probably at this point, are wise to the fact that if they went on Facebook and said, if you take the vaccine, you will be infertile that your fact checkers will find it. But if they instead said, I took the vaccine, my husband and I have been trying to get pregnant for the last six months, and we’ve had really no luck, I wonder if it’s related. That becomes much harder for you, I imagine.
Yeah. Yeah. And do you remember when there were the claims linking famous baseball player, Hank Aaron? I think they’re speculating that the vaccine causes death. So that’s a classic example. It’s like, you kind of freezes it just remove, you know, sort of sense of people’s right to kind of just speculate, as you say, in a way where they just kind of speculating stuff and putting, you know, saying two plus two makes five or whatever. So what we then do exactly is you then have the third-party fact checkers who kind of say, this is this is either false or partly false or missing context or whatever. And then we label it. And then you just reduce the distribution of the of the content. And if people have shared it, or try to share it before, it was not a fact check, well, then go back to those people and say, hey, by the way, the thing you saw and you tried to share has actually been shown to be false. We were doing I think at a bigger scale than any other social media company ever has done. But it’s sometimes kind of really difficult just to keep up with the sheer velocity of this.
Nick Clegg 26:47
And as you say, you’re having to usually having to have human beings to kind of sit and understand context and nuance and idiom and phraseology. You know, I remember you and I had a conversation about some posts where I was saying, look, I was saying, hey, Andy, this is like, you may not like it. But this is kind of satire. This is just people kind of, and you’re saying no, it’s not, it’s kind of like, it’s going to encourage people to think there’s some reason not to take the vaccine. And we just have a very honest, very honest kind of disagreement were very reasonable people can disagree about whether we think something false on one side of the line or the or the other. As I say, the scale of it’s pretty, pretty impressive. I think it’s close to 170 million bits of content of being demoted and labeled. But it’s, you know, you’re running to keep still sometimes with this stuff.
Yeah. And by the way, you were completely wrong.
I’m glad because I haven’t changed my mind.
Now, to people don’t even know what we’re talking about. It’s interesting because I will say that your Facebook who took a lot of heat for a long time not having posts up, which said that the virus may have been may have come from a lab. And for people who want to make the point that, oh, Facebook shop super easy, they should just take down anything and everything that has any negative consequences. And then, you know, at the other side of it, is that as things change, and as things evolve, you get it on the other end. So, I don’t.
Nick Clegg 28:22
Just on that one, I’m not sure. Maybe I misheard you, you know, we were removing that content.
Yes, I know. I know. That’s my point.
Clearly and people know, you know, I understand that people will say hey, you should never remove that. That’s how it’s been investing. And I’ll give you another example like which is I think is going to happen in the autumn and you’ll know better than me, this debate about booster in a vaccine. So you’ve got if I understand it correctly, we’ve actually got some other pharmaceutical companies advocating this should be a booster. But you’ve got I think, is that right? The CDC and others say no, we don’t see any case for it. So, you have claim and counterclaim about the merits of that.
It can be confusing. It can be confusing to people in real life, and it can be confusing to people on Facebook. What do you do about, I’m going to name two people. One is on the right one is on the left. Both of them I think are equally problematic. But they’re big, big mouthpieces. One is Robert Kennedy. One is Tucker Carlson. I don’t think either one of them has said anything remotely true or not inflammatory in quite some time. And they keep both keep amping up their games. And how do you think about them in their impact and what to do there? And obviously, the more you get into the sort of well-known people, the more visibility goes into whatever decisions you make.
Well, well as it happened in Robert F Kennedy Jr’s case we just ended up, we just ended up removing his Instagram account. Which is interesting because he just kept he just kept breaking our rules on COVID content and listen, people might say that’s an easy thing to do. But you know, you’re basically just saying, no, you’re no longer welcome to use our services. Now actually interesting. I think he said, he checked this, but I’m pretty sure that a month or two ago, he said to an interview in NPR, that it was our policies on Instagram, because we removed him from Instagram for repeated violations of our COVID misinformation policies, that he’s actually now changed the way he’s using. So he’s now being much more careful on Facebook, cuz he doesn’t want the same thing to happen on Facebook.
Nick Clegg 30:34
And look on Tucker Carlson, I, you know, we’ve, you know, I think he and his team didn’t liked it, but we’ve demoted and labeled a video that he, you know, he and his team have posted on the Tucker Carlson Tonight Facebook page, there was I remember, there was a report about a teenager’s adverse reaction to the vaccine. And we’ve demoted that and labeled it we didn’t remove it. And yeah, and that gets us into a lot of hot water, you know, because he’s a very articulate advocate for his viewpoint. And he’s got a lot of ardent supporters, and they kind of say, oh, you know, Facebook shouldn’t do that. How dare you?
So you get it? I mean, we, you know, look, and that’s, I’m not complaining about this at all. I think it’s part of the consequences, and possibly the kind of privilege or the success that Facebook’s had, but, we get it in the neck on both sides.
Right. Well, that’s probably one like that decision is probably one where you knew, we’re probably gonna make nobody happy here. Because I can imagine that people who don’t like that kind of posts are gonna say, well, that’s not good enough. Take it off, ban it. And people who are, you know, inclined to be sympathetic to his view, would say, you know, this is Facebook being judge and jury, God, etc, etc.
It’s censorship. And yeah, that’s the one thing which feels exceptionally similar to being in government. I mean, when I was deputy prime minister of a government, where we had to do some very difficult, unpopular things, because of the it was all in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. And I very quickly realized I wasn’t gonna get through that half decade, if I kept wanting to make decisions that were going to sort of make people happy, you just have to, you just have to make decisions, even though you know that you’re going to get yelled at from both sides of the equation.
Andy Slavitt 32:16
I’m sure there are people listening who have strong opinions. And I’m sure there are plenty people who think you should do more. And look, from my standpoint, if I assume a world under which Facebook does this perfectly, absolutely, perfectly. More people are vaccinated. So my job in the White House, of course, is in remains to push for tougher policies on how these algorithms work, and to see people who are right in the throes of making a decision, getting served up the exact method, the exact wrong time is painful.
Totally. And by the way, we talk principally about the US, but I mean, I mentioned this earlier, but you know, some of the WhatsApp in particular, I think just plays a massive mass. And we got 400 million people use WhatsApp in India, it’s incredibly important how that tool is used to get the right information in the right hands and get them, you know, to get their vaccination appointment. So I think it’s an area where we are doing great stuff, but I think we could do a whole lot more I’m sure of that.
Yeah. And look, I think WhatsApp cuts both ways. We have a limited ability for you to do what you talked about doing on Facebook, and WhatsApp, which is finding things that are patently false or being spread. And there are WhatsApp groups that I think we know, particularly in Spanish, that have been the subject of a lot of rumors or so. So we’ve been concerned about, so I’ll try to go where you went to, which is, which is it’s neither good nor bad. But it’s a fact of life we have to deal with. And let’s hope we deal with it as well as we can.
Andy Slavitt 34:14
One final thought from you before I let you go, and you’ve been so generous with your time. But there are going to be over the next three to five years political fallout from what we did or didn’t do well in vaccinating the globe. Do you see the ascendance of right-wing authoritarian parties? What is this spell for kind of the what comes after Brexit? Are there any things whether here in the US that you would observe or other things the political stage that we should pay attention to as an outgrowth of how this has been handled?
Well, this is a whole other conversation and but the rejection of expertise. The rejection of science, the rejection of reason, the rejection of reasonable argument have given take the rejection of kind of mutual respect and tolerance for other people’s views. That’s been building for a long time, that wasn’t invented by the pandemic. But the danger is the pandemic will massively accelerate that if governments fail to work together to actually kind of, you know, rescue communities, families, economies from the ravages of this of this pandemic. So, I think if the world gets this right, oddly enough, it’s a great opportunity to restore faith in, I think, some enduring values that I’ve always believed in, which is cooperation rather than isolationism. You know, openness rather than protectionism and respect for expertise and science, not a slavish belief that every scientist got it right. But you know, look at the wonders that the pharmaceutical companies and the scientists have done in such a short period of time in producing these vaccines already.
Nick Clegg 36:03
So I think there’s actually an opportunity for the world to kind of reassert those values, which really did become more and more frayed for a whole bunch of other reasons, I think, partly has to do with the way that modern economies worked, and you’d have millions of people, millions of voters who felt insecure, lost by the pace of change and felt, you know, they’d lost a sense of belonging. Yeah, I sort of my own country. I mean, you know, Brexit, famously, in Brexit, government, now, a government minister famously said, you know, I’m fed up with experts, I don’t believe in them anymore, you know, where all the experts were saying, it’s gonna be bad for the British economy, and so on so forth, as indeed it’s proving to be and so I kind of think if the world gets its act together on this, we may, it may, it may serve as a trampoline for the reassertion of some kind of, I think, quite foundational virtues, which wonder considerable threat for a bunch of unrelated reasons in recent years.
Well, let’s, let’s certainly hope so I think that’s a great note to end on. But I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t both say that if we fail, and we fail to pay attention to those things, the […] and the Trump’s and others are ready to pounce right on the heels of that.
Well, the politics of anger does well, when people are fearful. And that fear is that essentially ingredients of the politics of anger and division and if we can quell fear, and address it, I think there’s a great deal to be hopeful for if fear instead just runs amok, then yeah, I think the consequences could be pretty grave.
Well, Nick, thank you, for all the time, really enriching conversation. I think everybody listening learned a great deal. And I can’t thank you enough for just your candor. And you’re and for laughing and one of my jokes. I thought that was nice.
Thank you very much. I loved it. I really enjoyed it.
Andy Slavitt 38:03
Okay, so that’s the interview with Nick Clegg. I’m sure you have your impressions. curious as to what they are. I think you got an opportunity to hear what Facebook had to say. So let’s get into it. Let’s start with this killer charge. Is there any reason for this label to be thrown at Facebook? They’re indeed part of a machine that’s killing people. Well, let me dial back to the first conversation I had with Nick Clegg. It was back in March of 2021. I was in the White House maybe it was February. And it was a point in time when I was getting frustrated that we were having the same conversation over and over with Facebook. They weren’t sharing the information. They were, in effect stonewalling us. So it felt and our ability to figure out what the heck was going on with misinformation on their site. They weren’t sharing information. They told us that they had a secret project to deal with misinformation was unclear what that really was.
And when I first talked to Nick, I started the conversation by saying this, Nick, in eight weeks’ time, Facebook is going to be the number one story of the pandemic. And I was off by probably a good six weeks or more, in my estimation. But what I was really trying to say to Nick and I don’t know if he thought I was being overly dramatic or not, was that as hard as it is to believe because we’re facing a situation of severe shortages and under supply. As soon as we would have enough supply. We would run out of then demand and then people would look to where it was that was holding people out from getting vaccinated and people wouldn’t have to look hard and find Facebook is one place to point their finger.
Now, that really was a call for Facebook to start working very strenuously to start to make progress to eliminate a lot of the junk from the website so that that wouldn’t be the case. And that was the deed, my hope, I think that was the hope of others in the White House. And I would say over time, both from the time that I was there, and I’m sure continuing after I left, it felt like not a lot of progress was made. And a lot of the conversations, there were battles where it felt like Facebook was trying to supply just enough information to win the battle. And over and over again, maybe the effort to learn enough was thwarted, to the point where the frustration levels ran very high. And I think it ended up in a situation where I don’t think just the president, but others around the country, were feeling that more accountability is needed and more accountability is required.
Andy Slavitt 40:57
So a little bit of what happened, is really a continued view that the company needed to be more responsible. Now, you heard Nick’s response to the issues and the challenges. And let’s talk about what he had to say, I found some of his answers to be persuasive, namely, that this is a complex situation, then that every negative post is worth policing, that it’s very hard to determine intent. And that, you know, I’m quite sure that when your Facebook size, you know, you can only implement solutions at some [,…] scale. So no doubt a more complicated issue than anybody outside would like to see. Having said that, let’s go through some of the things he said and some of the things that Facebook says.
One of the first things they say is that they’re doing a lot more good than bad. And you heard that several times, you heard Nick talk about work to doing overseas, the fact that there are more people that feel positive about the vaccines from Facebook than before, we heard him talk about the fact that there are many more positive pieces of information and reviews of positive information than there are negative. Now, here’s my response in I actually learned quite a bit about how these companies really work. And what I learned is that that analysis fails to take into account that what really matters here are the only the very, very targeted people that are using Facebook, to make decisions about whether to get vaccinated or not or while they’re going through the reconsideration process. So lots and lots of positive messages falling on lots and lots of people who are not paying a lot of attention or who are already vaccinated isn’t particularly relevant.
Andy Slavitt 42:47
What’s relevant is that these very targeted people who may be searching about myths, who may be searching falsehoods, who may be in groups on Facebook, where they’re discussing very specific things, false very subject to the targeted algorithms that serve them up exactly the kind of information, they shouldn’t be seeing at exactly the wrong time. And so you may have 10 million positive things. But if you have 10,000, negative things seen by the 10,000 people that are making a decision that day, and whether to get vaccinated, and it discourages them from doing it. The 10 million positive things don’t matter. And if somebody said, you know, it’s like, if you’re a steak restaurant and you serve 1000 steaks and 990 people don’t get food poisoning. That’s not exactly a great restaurant. And it sort of goes to this other perspective here, which is that, you know, they really can’t police things because of free speech. And I will admit, that is also a very complex argument and a very thorny area to dive into and none of us would like to see our access to free speech and the platform as important as Facebook cut off.
Andy Slavitt 44:01
At the same time, let’s not confuse ourselves. Facebook is not a free service. Facebook is a very profitable product, where in effect, Facebook sells your attention to advertisers in a very targeted way. So they make a lot of money on this product. And when the product does something, were bad things happen. Aren’t they accountable? I mean, if you had a carwash and people were in the carwash dealing drugs, you know you weren’t exactly dealing the drugs, but aren’t you supposed to be paying attention to what’s going on? And if Candice Owens is making bald faced lies, and so is Robert Kennedy, and so is Tucker Carlson. It feels like there’s just much more that can be done there. If you do look at what they do as a product that they own, they should have responsibility for.
You know, the math is also pretty compelling. A third of Americans unvaccinated, two thirds of them believe some form of misinformation. The show on Monday talked about the five pieces of information that they believe half the people that were fence sitters are done quite half about 46% of people that were fence sitters in January ultimately decided not to get vaccinated. And people’s biggest source of information, who are not vaccinated is social media. And Facebook is the biggest social media platform. So the math, it says that these guys are very important. And even if they are doing a passable job, if they did a better job, imagine how good things would be. Now they say that it’s very difficult to police all of the misinformation, and I’m sure that’s true. But listen to this, which came out of the White House press conference.
There’s about 12 people who are producing 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. All of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms, including Facebook, ones that Facebook owns.
Andy Slavitt 46:08
So here Jen Psaki, who was on the show a couple weeks ago, is talking about a publicly released study that shows 12 people are responsible for 65% of vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. And it’s actually over 70% on Facebook. So is it really that hard to police? So I come away with this, sort of with the following summary. The first question is how big a problem is misinformation? How much is misinformation responsible for the lack of vaccination for the slowed vaccinations in this country. So I think it’s a big deal. I think it matters. Canada, just past the US in vaccination levels. I think the media intensity and the conspiracy intensity here in the US, is higher than in other countries. I think we will see many countries of the world as soon as they get enough vaccines. Many, if not most, if not all will surpass the US in terms of the number of people taking their vaccines.
And I think we have a particular problem. And I think we are a society in a culture that’s particularly caught up in conspiracy theories. Is Facebook to blame for that? No. Is Facebook make all that possible? Yes. So misinformation is at least in part, driving people’s decisions not to get vaccinated. I’m sure that if people had perfect information, and no misinformation, many more people would get vaccinated, but not all. There are other reasons that people aren’t getting vaccinated. So we can’t put this entirely on Facebook. But boy, the difference seems like it would be big. How comfortable is Facebook? Would you call them killers? You know, I’m gonna leave that for you to judge. Maybe a better way to think about it as they aid in the bet the killers, maybe they take payment from the killers in order to have a place to perform. That may be the way to think about it.
Andy Slavitt 48:03
Final question that I have, what should be done, what should be done about this, and this goes to the shuttle diplomacy of over the weekend, in my conversations with both Facebook and with the people, the administration. And I think what needs to happen is I think Facebook and their peers, Twitter, everyone else they need to come together. And I think they should make a commitment that they’re going to make a substantial change. And that substantial change would look something like this, they’re going to cut down on the amount of false information that people who haven’t been vaccinated, see, by 80%. So that will end up being able to say that for people who weren’t vaccinated, they’ll be seeing 80% less misinformation. And maybe they can’t get rid of all of it.
And maybe, you know, some of it is just too pernicious or too tricky, or right at a bubble. But they certainly can take care of a great, great, great percentage of it. And if they made that commitment, they would know how to do that. And I think they shouldn’t need the White House to ask them how to do that. So that’s the session today. I hope you stuck with me if you did, I think a great deal. I know that there’s a bit of a marathon. And we’re gonna move into a new topic for the sixth week of OUR SHOT. And the conversation next week is going to be about the great challenge, the great need, the great importance of vaccinating the globe, countries outside the US what’s happening there, what we need to do about it, and I look forward to talking to you then.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. Hope you rate us highly. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kryssy Pease and Alex McOwen produced the show. Our mix is by Ivan Kuraev. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs still rule our lives and executive produced the show. And our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, and additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter or at @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you like what you heard today, most importantly, please tell your friends to come listen and please stay safe, share some joy and we will get through this together.