Judicial Watch announced on Thursday that it received 14 pages of emails between U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and top Facebook executives in 2021 regarding the censorship of user posts about Covid controversies. The emails show Facebook leadership seeking to “better understand the scope of what the White House expects from us on misinformation going forward.”
Judicial Watch received these emails in response to its January 13, 2023, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit (Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (No. 1:23-cv-00113)) for:
All records, including, but not limited to, electronic mail, texts, memoranda, and handwritten notes, of, regarding, referring, or relating to any efforts of Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, U.S. Surgeon General, to contact any employee of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, YouTube, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Pinterest concerning COVID-19 or COVID-19 vaccines.
On July 15, 2021, Murthy issued “Confronting Health Misinformation,” a 22-page document addressing his concerns in multiple areas. These included social media, for which it offered a number of suggestions to address misinformation:
[M]ake meaningful long-term investments … including product changes. Redesign recommendation algorithms to avoid amplifying misinformation, build in “frictions”—such as suggestions and warnings—to reduce the sharing of misinformation, and make it easier for users to report misinformation.
Platforms should also address misinformation in live streams, which are more difficult to moderate due to their temporary nature and use of audio and video.
Prioritize early detection of misinformation “super-spreaders” and repeat offenders. Impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies.
Amplify communications from trusted messengers and subject matter experts. For example, work with health and medical professionals to reach target audiences. Direct users to a broader range of credible sources, including community organizations.
The newly obtained records show that on July 16, 2021, the next day, Nick Clegg, vice president of Communications and Global Affairs at Facebook, emails Murthy:
Reaching out after what has transpired over the past few days following the publication of the misinformation advisory, and culminating today in the President’s remarks about us. I know our teams met today to better understand the scope of what the White House expects from us on misinformation going forward.
In our previous conversations I’ve appreciated the way you and your team have approached our engagement, and we have worked hard to meet the moment – we’ve dedicated enormous time and resources to fighting this pandemic and consider ourselves to be partners in fighting the same battle. Certainly we understand (and have understood for some time) that there is disagreement on some of the policies governing our approach and how they are being enforced – even as your team has acknowledged the unprecedented scale of our efforts to provide authoritative information to millions of Americans and to help them get vaccinated. But I thought the way we were singled out over the past few days has been both surprising and misleading, and I believe unproductive to our joint efforts too.
I would appreciate the opportunity to speak directly to discuss a path forward with you and how we can continue to work toward what I sincerely believe are shared goals.
Murthy responds on July 19:
Thanks for reaching out and for sharing your concerns. I know the last few days have been challenging. I’d be happy to speak directly about how we move forward. Let me know the best way to schedule some time later this week and we’ll make it happen.
On July 23, Brian Rice, director of public policy for Facebook, emails Clegg and Murthy:
Including this week’s updated report here. Look forward to scheduling our next working session. As always please let us know if you have any questions.
Also on July 23, Clegg writes to Murthy:
Dear Vivek (if I may),
Thanks again for taking the time to meet earlier today. It was very helpful to take stock after the past week and hear directly from you and your team, and to establish our next steps.
We talked about the speed at which we are all having to iterate as the pandemic progresses. I wanted to make sure you saw the steps we took just this past week to adjust policies on what we are removing with respect to misinformation, as well as steps taken to further address the “disinfo dozen”: we removed 17 additional Pages, Groups, and Instagram accounts tied to the disinfo dozen (so a total of 39 Profiles, Pages, Groups, and IG accounts deleted thus far, resulting in every member of the disinfo dozen having had at least one such entity removed).
We are also continuing to make 4 other Pages and Profiles, which have not yet met
their removal thresholds, more difficult to find on our platform. We also expanded the group of false claims that we remove, to keep up with recent trends of misinformation that we are seeing.
We hear your call for us to do more and, as I said on the call, we’re committed to working toward our shared goal of helping America get on top of this pandemic. We will reach out directly to DJ to schedule the deeper dive on how to best measure Covid related content and how to proceed with respect to the question around data. We’d also like to begin a regular cadence of meetings with your team so that we can continue to update you on our progress. You have identified 4 specific recommendations for improvement and we want to make sure to keep you informed of our work on each.
I want to again stress how critical it is that we establish criteria for measuring what’s happening on an industry-wide basis, not least to reflect the way platforms are used interchangeably by users themselves. We believe that we have provided more transparency, both through CrowdTangle (the flaws of which we discussed in some detail) and through our Top 100 report, than others and that any further analysis should include a comprehensive look at what’s happening across all platforms–ours and others – if we are going to make progress in a consistent and sustained manner.
Finally, we will be sending you the latest version of our Top 100 report later today, per our regular schedule. Brian will do the honors this week as it will likely be completed at our end later today East Coast time. We really do hope that we can discuss our approach to this data set in greater detail during our next session with DJ, as we genuinely believe it is an effective way of understanding what people are actually seeing on the platform.
Once again, I want to thank you for setting such a constructive tone at the beginning of the call. We too believe that we have a strong shared interest to work together, and that we will strive to do all we can to meet our shared goals.
On October 28, 2021, Clegg writes to Murthy with the subject line “Our announcement:”
Dear General Murthy,
I hope you are well. It’s been a while since we connected. I know our teams have remained in close contact with respect to our work to provide authoritative information about the vaccine and we are working on how we can partner in this next push to vaccinate children. We appreciate the opportunity to partner with your team.
I also recognize the intense debate that’s been prompted by the documents that have been disclosed by a former employee. You and I have touched on the subject of wellbeing in our previous conversations and I know it’s an area of concern for you and for the White House. I would welcome the opportunity to meet again to hear from you and to address the claims that have been made against the company.
This is an apparent reference to France Haugen, a pro-censorship former Facebook product manager.
On March 3, 2022, Max Lesko, the surgeon general’s chief of staff, emails Clegg and others, “Please see the attached letter from the U.S. Surgeon General for Mark Zuckerberg.” The letter is not included in the documents Judicial Watch received. He continues by asking Clegg and Rice to let him know how he can be helpful with respect to the “Request for Information” which had been sent to the Federal Register.
“These emails confirm Facebook censored Americans at the direction of the Biden White House and Biden’s Surgeon General’s political operation,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “This is a massive violation of the First Amendment.”
Some of the subject matter in these documents is discussed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case Missouri v. Biden, Murthy, et al. (No. 23-30445), which the Biden administration lost. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court as Murthy, et al. v. Missouri, et al. (No. 23A243).
In April 2023, Judicial Watch filed two lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies for communications between the agencies and Facebook and Twitter regarding the government’s involvement in content moderation and censorship on the social media platforms.
In June 2023, Judicial Watch sued DHS for all records of communications tied to the Election Integrity Partnership. Based on representations from the EIP (see here and here), the federal government, social media companies, the EIP, the Center for Internet Security (a non-profit organization funded partly by DHS and the Defense Department) and numerous other leftist groups communicated privately via the Jirasoftware platform developed by Atlassian.
In February 2023, Judicial Watch sued the U.S. Department Homeland Security (DHS) for records showing cooperation between the Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) and social media platforms to censor and suppress free speech.
Judicial Watch in January 2023 sued the DOJ for records of communications between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and social media sites regarding foreign influence in elections, as well as the Hunter Biden laptop story.
In September 2022, Judicial Watch sued the Secretary of State of the State of California for having YouTube censor a Judicial Watch election integrity video.
In May 2022, YouTube censored a Judicial Watch video about Biden corruption and election integrity issues in the 2020 election. The video, titled “Impeach? Biden Corruption Threatens National Security,” was falsely determined to be “election misinformation” and removed by YouTube, and Judicial Watch’s YouTube account was suspended for a week. The video featured an interview of Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. Judicial Watch continues to post its video content on its Rumble channel (https://rumble.com/vz7aof-fitton-impeach-biden-corruption-threatens-national-security.html).
In July 2021, Judicial Watch uncovered records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which revealed that Facebook coordinated closely with the CDC to control the Covid narrative and “misinformation” and that over $3.5 million in free advertising given to the CDC by social media companies.
In May 2021, Judicial Watch revealed documents showing that Iowa state officials pressured social media companies Twitter and Facebook to censor posts about the 2020 election.