President Joe Biden’s administration pressured Meta to restrict messages on WhatsApp, according to newly disclosed emails.
Rob Flaherty, an assistant to the president, messaged Meta executives in March 2021 to ask about how the company was working to reduce “harm,” one of the emails shows.
“On Whatsapp, which I may seem like I’m playing gotcha, but I guess I’m confused about how you’re measuring reduction of harm,” he wrote in one email. “If you can’t see the message, I’m genuinely curious—how do you know what kinds of messages you’ve cut down on? Assuming you’ve got a good mousetrap here, that’s the kind of info we’re looking for … what interventions you’ve taken, and what you’d found to work and not work?”
WhatsApp is a private messaging service that Facebook bought in 2014, sparking concerns about user privacy. Meta is the parent company of both WhatsApp and Facebook.
Flaherty and Andrew Slavitt, at the time a top White House COVID-19 adviser, had been pressuring Meta executives to take action against supposed COVID-19 misinformation, expressing concern that such information—even if true—could lead to vaccine hesitancy. The Biden administration has aggressively tried to get Americans vaccinated, including through mandates. The email came after Slavitt held a call with Meta officials in which they discussed WhatsApp.
A Meta executive responded, informing Flaherty that about 90 percent of the messages sent on WhatsApp are one-on-one, with the rest being sent in group chats. But Meta was taking steps to address alleged misinformation.
“You’re right that without being able to see the content of messages on WhatsApp, we’re not able to measure prevalence (and, relatedly, reduction) of particular types of content. WhatsApp seeks to control the spread of misinformation and inform users through deliberate, content-agnostic product interventions—things like labeling and limiting message forwards,” the executive said.
“The underlying idea there is that messages that did not originate from a close contact are less personal compared to typical messages sent on WhatsApp, and may be more prone to contain misinformation. The labels (‘forwarded’; and ‘forwarded many times’ if the message has been forwarded five times or more) are intended to prompt people to stop and think when they are reading a message and before they forward something, which may not be accurate. The forward limits (no more than five chats at time; one chat a time for highly forwarded messages), are intended to reduce their spread.”
After the limits on highly forwarded messages were introduced early in the COVID-19 pandemic, those messages were reduced by 70 percent globally, according to the executive.
“Of course, not all forwards are misinformation, so these are by nature somewhat blunt tools, but they are important ones—and ones that many other messaging services don’t provide,” the executive said.
WhatsApp also bans accounts engaged in “mass marketing or scam behaviors,” including accounts “that seek to exploit COVID-19 misinformation,” the executive said.
The executive also touted how WhatsApp has introduced a feature enabling users to tap a magnifying glass button to launch a web search to double-check forwarded messages, the executive said, adding, “This helps users find news results or other sources of authoritative information about messages they have received from outside their close contacts—and is available in English, Spanish, and other languages.”
WhatsApp also provided $1 million to the International Fact-Checking Network, and users can receive answers from a “fact-checking bot.” Answers come from organizations such as the World Health Organization.
Flaherty responded, saying: “Will say I’m really mostly interested in what effects the interventions and products you’ve tested have had on increasing vaccine interest within hesitant communities, and which ones have shown promise. Really couldn’t care less about products unless they’re having measurable impact. And while the product safari has been interesting, at the end of the day, I care mostly about what actions and changes you’re making to ensure sure you’re not making our country’s vaccine hesitancy problem worse.”
“I still don’t have a good, empirical answer on how effective you’ve been at reducing the spread of vaccine-skeptical content and misinformation to vaccine fence sitters,” he added.
Flaherty claimed that WhatsApp helped “increase skepticism” in the 2020 election and that the U.S. Capitol breach after the election was “plotted, in large part, on your platform.” He asked for “assurances, based in data, that you are not doing the same thing again here.”
“Understood. I thought we were doing a better job through [redacted] responding to this-and we are working to get the data that will more clearly show the universe of the Covid content that’s highest in distribution with a clear picture of what percentage of that content is vax hesitancy content, and how we are addressing it,” a Meta executive said. “I know [redacted] told Andy that would take a bit of time to nail down and we are working on that universe of data. I will make sure we’re more clearly responding to your questions.”
The messages were produced during discovery in Missouri v. Biden, a federal lawsuit.
Meta and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
“The overwhelming evidence is clear: the highest levels of our federal government are suppressing the First Amendment rights of Americans who have opposing views,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican and one of the plaintiffs, told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement. “This egregious and unlawful viewpoint censorship by the White House, FBI, CDC, CISA, and other agencies not only chills speech; but it also unjustly inflicts grave and irreparable injuries on citizens and states, whose duty it is to protect their fundamental rights.”
The case is moving forward after the U.S. judge overseeing it rejected a government attempt to have it dismissed. The same judge was assigned to a class-action suit that alleges the government violated Americans’ First Amendment rights with its pressure on Big Tech to censor content.