Senate Democrats introduced new legislation Thursday to hold social media platforms accountable for health-related misinformation during public health emergencies, a move that could cause more censorship during crises similar to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Health Misinformation Act, introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the controversial liability shield for user-generated content online. If passed, the legislation would allow social media giants, such as Facebook and YouTube, to be sued for dangerous health misinformation on their platforms.
The bill would direct the Health and Human Services secretary to issue guidelines about what constitutes health misinformation.
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how lethal misinformation can be and it is our responsibility to take action,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans. These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation."
In her statement, Klobuchar cited a recent study that found social media platforms failed to act on 95% of coronavirus-related disinformation reported during the pandemic. She also highlighted a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found two-thirds of people not vaccinated against the coronavirus believe problematic myths about the vaccine.
However, the bill's removal of Section 230 protections for social media platforms may not actually result in less health misinformation online because the law only protects platforms from getting sued for illegal content on their websites — misinformation is technically not illegal by itself.
The legislation is also focused on making online platforms liable for content they actively amplify through an algorithm, not for content simply posted on a platform.
"Sen. Klobuchar’s new bill [that] would task the Department of Health and Human Services to define what constitutes 'medical misinformation' almost certainly violates the First Amendment and would never hold up in court," said Evan Greer, director of the digital advocacy group Fight for the Future.
"Which is frustrating because this is a real problem that requires real solutions. The bill falls into two interrelated traps: buying into the twin ideas that the federal government dictating how platforms moderate content and weakening Section 230 will make platforms moderate more responsibly," Greer added.
If made into law and executed as intended, Greer said the bill would result in social media platforms suppressing and censoring content unnecessarily to avoid getting sued, including important and accurate information on public health.
Defining what is and isn't health misinformation is complicated and often in flux. Most medical experts and social media platforms, for example, did an about-turn regarding the theory the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan.
The bill's sponsors say the federal government needs to do more to rein in social media giants that have caused significant harm by allowing misinformation to flourish.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube did little while COVID-19 related misinformation spread on their platforms — fueling distrust in public health officials, promoting conspiracy theories, and putting lives at risk," Lujan said in a statement. “As COVID-19 cases rise among the unvaccinated, so has the amount of misinformation surrounding vaccines on social media. Lives are at stake."
Tech companies themselves are opposed to the bill because they say it would give the government too much power over online speech.
“We all want less misinformation online, but this approach would turn future Republican presidents into the speech police,” said Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, an advocacy group backed by Amazon, Facebook, and Google.
“When President Ron DeSantis's HHS Secretary deems pro-choice and transgender speech 'misinformation,' Democrats would regret this," he added.
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Original Author: Nihal Krishan