Dr. Scott Gottlieb Urges Social Media Platforms to Curb Covid Vaccine Misinformation

Adam Jeffery | CNBC
  • Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday that social media giants are falling short of their responsibility to regulate the spread of coronavirus vaccine misinformation on their platforms.
  • “I do think that they have an affirmative responsibility here, and in some cases they’re not doing it,” the former FDA chief, who serves on the board of Covid-19 vaccine maker Pfizer, said.
  • Gottlieb’s comments came hours before President Joe Biden walked back some of his prior statement criticizing social platforms like Facebook for hosting deadly Covid vaccine misinformation on their services.

Social media companies are falling short of their responsibility to regulate the spread of Covid-19 vaccine misinformation on their platforms, Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Monday on CNBC.

Networking giants like Facebook and Twitter allow accounts to amass large followings and to be verified, handing those users a franchise, he said in an appearance on "Squawk Box." 

"If they're giving someone a very big platform to distribute information, they have an obligation to look at the information that's being distributed," said Gottlieb, a former chief of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under former President Donald Trump. "I do think that they have an affirmative responsibility here, and in some cases they're not doing it."

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on Gottlieb's remarks. Twitter has not responded to a request for comment.

The comments echo that of President Joe Biden, who on Friday said social platforms like Facebook are killing people by allowing Covid vaccine misinformation to spread on their platforms. However, Biden walked back some of that statement on Monday, saying he instead meant to accuse a dozen users, but not the social media platform itself, of spreading deadly misinformation about Covid vaccines.

That followed comments by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who earlier that day said the administration was flagging problematic posts on Facebook that peddled misleading or false information about vaccinations. Psaki had also suggested steps Facebook and other social media services can take to combat false narratives, like publicly sharing the impact of misinformation on their services, promoting quality information and taking swifter action against harmful posts.

Facebook has disputed the remarks coming out of the White House. A company spokesperson said Saturday that the platform has, in fact, displayed authoritative information on Covid and vaccines, and has also encouraged people to use its vaccine finder tool. 

Gottlieb, who serves on the board of Covid-19 vaccine maker Pfizer, said Twitter, not just Facebook, is responsible for hosting vaccine misinformation. Focus groups in the administration currently working to addressing the issue are targeting Facebook because many people are specifically pointing to information they viewed on the site. 

"I think the line is [crossed] when you're putting out information that's knowingly false," Gottlieb, a CNBC contributor, said. "When you're putting out fake scientific data, fake information in a way that's highly misleading, that's clearly a line, and that's going on, so I think that's easy to police."

Deaths from Covid are increasing again in the U.S. as the highly transmissible delta variant spreads in largely unvaccinated communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 161 million Americans are fully vaccinated, though the rate of shots administered daily has slowed dramatically in recent months, according to a CDC tracker.

Gottlieb again urged the CDC to track all of the breakthrough infections occurring in vaccinated people, not just those among infected people who become hospitalized. 

"I don't think it's an overwhelming number, but we're not tracking it here in the United States and that's the bottom line. We should be tracking it," Gottlieb said. "We should also have a better sense of whether or not this is a more transmissible strain even among the vaccinated."

He told CNBC on Friday he believes the U.S. is "vastly underestimating" the number of Covid delta infections, particularly among vaccinated people with mild symptoms or a breakthrough case, making it difficult to understand if the strain is causing higher-than-expected hospitalization and death rates.

People who have been previously infected with the virus and have a low risk of infection should still get vaccinated to develop a "very robust and durable immunity," Gottlieb said.

A booster shot of a Covid vaccine would just be an additional dose of a current vaccine, Gottlieb said, adding "the existing vaccine is very protective against the delta variant based on the information that we have."

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings' and Royal Caribbean's "Healthy Sail Panel."

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