A Telling Exchange at the Zuckerberg Hearing

How a question about vaccines made it into a hearing about cryptocurrency

Mark Zuckerberg
Susan Walsh / AP

“Are you 100 percent confident that vaccines pose no injury to any person on this planet?”

That was a real question asked today by Bill Posey, a congressman representing Florida’s Eighth District, to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook, for the record, is not a pharmaceutical company. Zuckerberg is not a medical professional. There are no indications that Libra, the proposed cryptocurrency that was supposedly the object of the House subcommittee hearing during which this exchange took place, will require its users to submit their vaccination records.

Posey’s monologue—he claimed to “support vaccinations,” but was also “disappointed Facebook would consider interfering with free speech with vaccinations”—was shocking in not only its content, but also its context. Posey was complaining about changes Facebook announced in March: that it would reject ads that include misinformation about vaccines and stop recommending groups and pages that spread such misinformation. Today’s hearing was about whether, in starting a cryptocurrency, Facebook might destabilize the global financial system.

But the Facebook that wants to create a cryptocurrency is the same Facebook that has spent years inadvertently creating—and then recently, clumsily, trying to uncreate—the information ecosystem that provided the basis for Posey’s question in the first place. At the hearing, Posey said, “The federal government has created a vaccination trust fund that has paid out over $4 billion to compensate those who have been injured by vaccinations.” That’s not exactly right: He was referring to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which my colleague James Hamblin reported on this spring. The program reimburses people who claim to have been injured by vaccines, and the process for determining which claims are valid is less than scientific. About 70 percent of the money was doled out in cases where no government body actually concluded that a vaccine was at fault.

Yet the idea that the existence of the fund proves that vaccines cause harm, as Posey argued, continues to find traction online—including on Facebook. As Hamblin reported after Facebook’s new vaccine-content policy was announced earlier this year:

In one case, a viral article called “Flu Vaccine Is the Most Dangerous Vaccine in the U.S. Based on Settled Cases for Injuries” points to these payments as evidence of vaccines’ danger. The post was published on a site called Health Impact News: News That Impacts Your Health That Other Media Sources May Try to Censor! and appears to have 210,000 likes on Facebook.

Last month, Facebook introduced rules that would exempt advertisements from politicians—like Posey—from its ban on making false claims. Just 40 minutes before Posey spoke, while answering questions about that policy from Representative Maxine Waters of California, Zuckerberg inadvertently revealed exactly why such uninformed diatribes by politicians fall neatly within his domain.

“Our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians’ speech, and the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Zuckerberg said. The company does, he clarified, work with independent fact-checkers to police a subset of posts and ads that are flagged by users and “technical systems.” That’s because “we have feedback that people in our community don’t want to see viral hoaxes,” Zuckerberg said.

The exchange between Posey and Zuckerberg highlighted the ways in which Facebook’s reluctance to send political ads to fact-checkers could clash with other promises the company has made. When I asked a Facebook spokesperson whether Facebook would reject an ad by a politician that contained vaccine misinformation, she said that it would not be sent to those contracted fact-checkers, but it would be subject to the same limitations as an ad by any other entity. In other words, it would be rejected. In fact, in the section of Facebook’s advertising policies that deals with misinformation, there are two examples of content that would trigger a rejection: “ads containing claims which are debunked by third party fact checkers,” and ads with vaccine misinformation.

The fact remains that Facebook’s own policies—and Zuckerberg’s rhetoric—could lead to the company cleaning up more and more of these messes. As Posey put it in his address to Zuckerberg, “Today, you testified you believe in giving people a voice.”