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Tipsheet

Emails Shine New Light on CDC-Facebook COVID Collusion

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Emails between federal agencies and Facebook employees from November 2020 obtained and released by the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) show how the social media giant was guided in its messaging surrounding COVID-19, who it was told should be targeted, how users should be targeted, and what was being done to use social media to "drive uptake of vaccines."

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In a chain of emails initially planning a meeting between Dr. Deborah Birx and Facebook's Vice President of Health, the CDC provided updates and suggestions for how Facebook could package government data to make it "resonate" with users more and to whom information needed to be directed.

"Last night, the county-level data set went live, so over the next few weeks if you want to somehow bring in hyper-localized stats/ alerts based on where users are located, it could be powerful to scrape this for the "Absolute change in% positivity rate" - that shows how fast it's spreading and quite frankly may be more resonate with people than total death count across the country," said Amira Boland, a career staffer in the federal government's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "Maybe like a local weather alert? 'COVID is spreading faster in Franklin County,'" Boland suggested. 

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Boland then points out "States where there's increasing rates and individual level mitigation efforts are not strong enough" and lists "AK, AL, AR, CO, IA, ID, IN, KS, KY, MN, MO, MT, NE, NV, SD, TN, WI and WY" before narrowing down "some groups we need to act." Those groups include "Midwestern men 35+," "Non-Urban (e.g, smaller cities, rural that are road-tripping to see familiesboth women and men)," "Gen Z - College students," and "Millennials."

The email then includes a forwarded message sent to other "communications partners" that outlines "a more focused message for the next week (and generally over the holiday season)." Boland tells Facebook "Anything you can do to highlight actions people can be empowered with (e.g., 'Rethink travel, gather virtually, wear a mask') rather than just saying something like 'learn more about COVID-19' would be great. (As in, if you had those actions link to guidance (rather than more generic "learn more" when you flag something as related to COVID19), since most won't click through, and the guidance is too long for most to read ©)."

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Boland then advises Facebook that "Messages of duty e.g., 'For your family, for your country' seem to be most resonate to young individuals and men." 

Then in a later email, sent in June of 2021 from Public Policy Manager Payton lheme, Facebook alerted the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and OMB to its new "Alliance for Advancing Health Online" initiative and the Alliance's first activity: "a new fund that will provide grants to researchers and organizations for projects that explore how to use social media and digital platforms to build confidence in and drive uptake of vaccines."

As the email explains, one of the groups in the Alliance is the CDC Foundation "an independent nonprofit and the sole entity created by Congress to mobilize philanthropic and private-sector resources to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s critical health protection work." So the CDC was telling Facebook who, how, and where to target COVID messaging and the CDC Foundation was working with Facebook to figure out how to use social media to drive people to get vaccinated.

For Facebook and Instagram users, it's already been obvious that the social network leans heavily on CDC sources. Flags appear on any post, story, link, even private message that mentions anything about COVID, the pandemic, vaccines, etc. and direct users to CDC websites. 

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The emails ICAN uncovered provide some of the clearest evidence to date on the collusion between Facebook and the federal government's public health agencies. From targeting groups that apparently aren't falling in line with the CDC's guidance to using messages that are more "resonate" with those groups, to working on using social media to drive vaccination, these emails show how closely Facebook and federal health officials have been intertwined.

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