If Biden really wants to crack down on social media that spread fake news, here’s what he should do | Opinion

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Andres Oppenheimer
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

While media attention during President Biden’s first days in office focused on his bold proposals for the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and immigration, I found that one of his most interesting — and less noticed — vows was to take a leading role in the fight against fake news.

In his Jan. 20 inaugural speech, Biden said, “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.”

He was speaking at the Capitol, stormed on Jan. 6 by a mob of domestic terrorists and gullible people brainwashed by President Trump’s false claim — and amplified by social media — that the Nov. 3 presidential election had been stolen from him..

In fact, Democratic and Republican electoral authorities, nearly 60 courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court — which has a conservative majority — found no evidence of any fraud that could have put Biden’s victory in doubt.

“There is truth, and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit,” Biden said in his speech. “Each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

As president, Biden is likely to act on this premise. During the campaign, he said that Facebook, Twitter and other social media should do much more to stop the spread of fake news, which, according to U.S. officials, often are planted by Russia and other foreign governments.

Last June, the Biden campaign released a letter asking Facebook to stop Trump from spreading “misinformation that corrodes our democracy.”

Later, Biden supported congressional calls for repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents social media companies from being sued for the content they post.

Trump had also demanded regulation of social media after Facebook, Twitter and other social networks started tagging his false claims as “disputed.”

Technology firms have long argued that they don’t create, but only disseminate content, and therefore should be shielded from legal responsibility for the news they distribute.

But that argument was already fizzling before the November elections and is likely to come under greater government scrutiny now as Congress looks into the key role social media played in the Jan. 6 coup attempt to disrupt lawmakers gathered to certify the Electoral College’s results.

Even after the insurrection, the false story that the mob actually was a group of extreme-left Antifa militants posing as pro-Trump sympathizers was cited at least 411,099 times online in less than 24 hours, according to the Zignal lab media intelligence firm. Hours later, Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets amplified that lie to larger audiences.

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology and starred in the recent Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” told me that, “The only way that we solve these problems is definitely through some government regulation.”

Harris added, “When I say that, I don’t mean the government regulating what we can or can’t say. I think we need government to regulate the business models of these companies.”

Right now, he explained, social media companies make money through viewers’ “engagement time” — the amount of time we spend on their platforms — and clicks. Many studies show that the wilder the claims in postings, the longer periods of time people spend reading them and the more clicks they get.

We have to change these companies’ business model, he said. I tend to agree.

Perhaps the founders of big tech companies should be more liable for what they publish, just as radio or television stations are. Given that most of us are against government censorship, and that self-regulation hasn’t worked, perhaps the solution is a middle ground: forced self-regulation.

In Germany, a 2018 law imposes big fines on social media companies that fail to delete hate speech or potentially violence-inciting content within 24 hours. That law has encouraged digital networks to hire thousands of additional content reviewers.

Whatever form it takes, fighting “the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured” will be one of Biden’s more important tasks. The future of America’s democracy may depend on it.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera