I favor punishing deadly liars–and their accomplices

So Amy Klobuchar wants to punish social media platforms that allow the spread of COVID disinformation:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced legislation Thursday to fight bogus medical claims online during health crises like the coronavirus pandemic. Her target: Section 230.

Klobuchar’s bill would carve out an exception to Section 230, the 1996 law that protects internet platforms from liability for content that users post, for health misinformation proliferating during public health emergencies — like the misinformation that has been running rampant about vaccines for Covid-19.

“We need a long term solution” that goes beyond removing accounts spreading falsehoods about the crisis, Klobuchar said. “This legislation will hold online platforms accountable.”.

Why it matters: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been pushing to amend or revoke theSection 230 statute — often for opposite reasons.Many congressional Democrats argue that social media platforms have leaned on Section 230 legal protections to flout responsibility for false and potentially dangerous content on their sites, like the medical misinformation that has undermined the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines.

The Biden administration is struggling to fight vaccination misinformation, a problem that has contributed to vaccine hesitancy and a plateau in inoculation rates at a time when the Delta variant is sweeping the country and the U.S. appears to be backsliding on recovery.

Klobuchar’s Health Misinformation Act of 2021, co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), is one attempt to address that, and it would extend beyond just the current crisis. Under the measure, tech platforms would be on the hook for propagating false or misleading health content during any public health emergency that has been declared as such by the secretary of Health and Human Services. The secretary, with input from experts and the leaders of other federal agencies, would be tasked with defining what qualifies as health misinformation.

Seems reasonable to me. Of course, the GOP will lie that this is hypocrisy because Normals rejected Trump’s attempt to punish social media platforms for allowing people to criticize him. The problem with that stupid argument is that publishing the truth about Trump is not the same as publishing deadly lies about COVID.

There are limits to free speech. As has been famously said, free speech does not protect the right to scream “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre. Monstrous people who deliberately spread lies about a pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans are as guilty of reckless endangerment as the theatre screamer. And those who hand him a bullhorn are accomplices and should face the heat with him. They don’t get to plead innocent when they are already kicking lots of other people off the platform for reasons ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. If social media platforms can kick people off for spreading Nazi propaganda, they can filter these people out or suffer the consequences for failing to do so.


4 Responses

  1. One big reservation I have about this is that Trump or someone like him would use this power to declare the real science as “misleading information.”

    1. Meh. The CDC and the FDA both did their jobs effectively under Trump. There’s a limit to just how much a doofus like Trump is able to corrupt scientific organizations in our system. Trump was not able to muzzle Fauci. People who wanted to know the truth were easily able to find it.
      In your (Ken’s) scenario, the vast majority of Americans would recognize that Trump was deliberately corrupting social media, and said social media would be abandoned by a large sector of the public. And Wall Street would erupt because Facebook’s >$1Tn market cap would be in grave jeopardy. Neither Congress nor their corporate paymasters will let that happen.
      – joel

      1. Maybe so, and the hopeful part of me wants to believe that systems of scientific integrity would ultimately prevail over politics, but I’ve seen a whole lot of norms and boundaries crossed in the past few years that I never thought I’d live to see in this country, or any stable industrial democracy. “Alternative fact” and conspiracy theories have become very mainstream, along with open contempt for rule of law and professional expertise. In these times I’m leery of creating vast new executive powers for the same reasons we should be very hesitant about handing out hi tech weaponry to “allies” in the Middle East.

        As I dig into the nitty gritty of Klobuchar’s bill, it looks to me like its effect would be quite limited. If by some miracle it passed, it would remove Section 230 liability protections for social media companies which actively enable the spread of false information during health emergencies etc. So FB or whoever would have to defend a lawsuit rather than dismissing it with a wave of the hand and invocation of “230”. But the bill would not create a legal cause of action to file a suit in the first place. If it did, or if some other law is passed doing that, it will immediately run into constitutional law issues and would almost certainly face what the Supreme Court calls the “strict scrutiny” standard aka a very high barrier for free speech restriction. If it somehow cleared all that, there is the risk of absurd collateral damage. I could foresee the conspiracy loons getting web hosting out of Russia or someplace effectively beyond the reach of law. Journalists meanwhile or anyone else who wanted to debunk a story about a bogus cure would find themselves unable to mention it by name because platforms terrified of liability would block it by algorithm. Humans read only a tiny percentage of things that pass through them because its labor intensive and costly, but computers can’t apply common sense context.

        If nothing else, the bill whether it passes or not may well help sweat the big media platforms into policing their feeds a bit more, and I’m all for that.

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