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Biden White House urged Meta to censor content on WhatsApp

By Sarah May on
 March 25, 2023

With the White House already facing serious scrutiny over its efforts to censor COVID-19-related information on public social media sites during the pandemic, new revelations suggest that administration officials also targeted content shared on private messaging platform, WhatsApp, as Fox News reports.

The startling claims come from independent journalist David Zweig, who reviewed communications between White House officials and Meta, WhatsApp's parent company, elicited via ongoing federal litigation.

WhatsApp Targeted

As Zweig points out in a recent Substack piece, the so-called Twitter files have shed a great deal of light on the manner and extent to which the Biden administration went to exert pressure on public social media platforms to censor content in accordance with the wishes of the White House, particularly with regard to COVID-19.

However, as Zweig further notes, government officials did not stop there, but they also actively attempted to coerce companies to moderate content on a private speech platform, namely, WhatsApp.

Almost as soon as Biden took office in January of 2021, White House staffers reportedly began engaging with Meta executives to learn about how they intended to combat vaccine hesitancy, not just on Facebook and Instagram, but also on WhatsApp, a service touted for its privacy and encrypted messaging capabilities.

While attempts to censor content on Twitter, Facebook and the like were certainly troubling, Zweig contends, efforts aimed at WhatsApp were even more insidious, given that the platform is not designed for widespread content sharing, but rather for “direct, personal communications – between family and friends, a doctor and a patient, and so on.”

White House pressure mounts

To underscore the lengths to which the Biden administration went to involve itself in censoring content on WhatsApp, Zweig cites a series of emails sent to Meta from Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy.

Hoping to get a feel for what steps Meta was taking to reduce “harm” on the app, Flaherty asked executives, “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 above: what interventions you've taken, and what you've found to work and not work? And how effective are you seeing the good information on WhatsApp be?” Flaherty continued.

Also found on the email chain was then-White House senior advisor on the COVID response, Andy Slavitt, who indicated his willingness to speak to Meta officials on the phone “a couple of times per week” if that would help facilitate stronger content moderation.

Structural limitations emerge

Despite the administration's apparent insistence that Meta engage in some kind of effective censorship of content the White House did not like, the structure and nature of the WhatsApp platform simply did not lend itself to the same types of actions used by Twitter, Facebook, and similar entities.

Rather, WhatsApp's moderation abilities were limited primarily to pushing information to users of the app, sending updates from the World Health Organization, government health ministries, and so on, and also creating a chat bot designed to help users make vaccination appointments.

WhatApp also did what it could to limit message forwarding to prevent content from going viral on the platform, suggesting that while that approach was “content-agnostic,” it could still aid in preventing the spread of misinformation.

Flaherty remained displeased, however, responding at one point, “I care mostly about what actions and changes you're making to ensure 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.”

"Over the censorship line"

Zweig opined that even though “it was obvious from the start that WhatsApp's interface didn't allow for the granular control Flaherty appeared to desire...he kept badgering the Meta executives anyway.”

He added, “The exchanges about WhatsApp are arresting not because of what Meta ultimately did or did not do on the platform...but because efforts to moderate content on a private messaging service was a continued interest for a White House official at all.”

Many in the Twitterverse shared Zweig's concerns, with user @Neoavatara declaring, “This is so, so far over the censorship line, I am not even sure what to compare it to.”

Another user suggested that the administration unlawfully “wanted a back door to essentially wire tap conversations that were being represented as being completely private one-to-one or one-to-few channels, without any sort of due process,” but whether any further investigation of what took place will result from Zweig's findings is something that remains to be seen.