Biden's secret weapon in fight against right-wing COVID-19 misinformation? Olivia Rodrigo

The savvy digital play appears to be working — data shows White House content eclipsing anti-vax messages on FB

Published July 17, 2021 1:24PM (EDT)

Pop music star and actress Olivia Rodrigo makes a brief statement to reporters in the White House Press Briefing Room on July 14, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Pop music star and actress Olivia Rodrigo makes a brief statement to reporters in the White House Press Briefing Room on July 14, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden's statement Friday that social media giants were "killing people" by propagating anti-vaccine content sent conservative media into a meltdown, but in railing on its recent hobby horse, the White House certainly has one fact right: far-right content, especially anti-vax messages, performs very well on these platforms. Especially Facebook.

But one savvy move in particular by the Biden team this week appears to have significantly cut into that lead: a White House appearance Wednesday by the pop star Olivia Rodrigo to promote COVID-19 vaccination.

"We need to reach people, meet people where they are and speaking to young people -- people who are under the age of 18," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing. 

Even taking just the past week alone, anti-vaccine posts by right-wing personalities like Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino dominated Facebook's news feed, garnering hundreds of thousands of interactions, according to data from Crowdtangle, a publicly available analytics tool run by Facebook. 

In fact, a Crowdtangle analysis by the politics and advertising newsletter FWIW shows 12 of the top 15 vaccine-related posts on the platform earlier this week were negative. One video in particular dominated Facebook's algorithm for much of the week: a selfie-style live talkback with right-wing pundit Candace Owens, in which she encourages people to leave or get fired from their jobs for flouting vaccine rules because "no job is worth your health." The post was shared more than 130,000 times and currently has more than 4 million views.

Enter Olivia Rodrigo.

The "good 4 u" singer's White House appearance sent political Twitter into a tizzy, but it appears the real impact of the strategy was felt on Facebook — where at least three posts from the event catapulted into the platform's top 15 over the next three days, according to a Salon analysis, while the misinformation-filled Candace Owens video that had previously been everywhere on Facebook fell out of the leaderboard entirely.

The top post on the platform is now a picture of Biden and Rodrigo donning the president's signature aviator sunglasses.

The other two include a video that Rodrigo recorded with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House COVID-19 advisor, in which the pair read vaccine tweets, and a selfie of the pop star and Biden, in which she gushes about how excited she is to be at the White House.

The trend carried over on Instagram as well, with the top five most-interacted with posts all related to Rodrigo's White House visit. Though Instagram generally promotes less vaccine misinformation than Facebook, FWIW reported, the Rodrigo-related content garnered significantly more interactions than the platform's previous top posts, with millions of likes and shares. 

In fact, the top four Biden-Rodrigo posts hold hold the top spots over the past month, despite being live for just under three days. 

The social media blitz is part of a larger strategy on behalf of the White House digital team, which has decided in recent weeks, alongside its Democratic allies, to be more proactive in combating right-wing misinformation that the president increasingly views as a threat to the country's post-COVID recovery process. 

Jen Psaki even went so far as to say this week that the administration is in "regular touch" with social media platforms and actively flags "problematic posts" for Facebook higher-ups.

"This is troubling, but a persistent narrative that we are seeing," she said. "We want to know that social media platforms are taking steps to address it."

As of Thursday, The CDC reports 55.8% of Americans have gotten at least one dose of vaccine — while 48.3% of the country is fully vaccinated — a 0.6% increase from the previous week.

By Brett Bachman

Brett Bachman was the Nights/Weekend Editor at Salon.

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