Should Social Media Companies Be Liable for Health Misinformation?

A new bill from the Senate could revoke Section 230 protections for companies whose algorithms promote health misinformation.
Conor Cawley

Social media companies could be in for some trouble, as a new bill in the Senate aims to hold them accountable for the health-related misinformation spread throughout their platforms.

Despite widespread vaccine availability, the United States is still struggling with the pandemic, as more than half of the population remains unvaccinated. To make matters worse, those refusing to take the shot are staunchly opposed to ever taking it, likely fueled by the conspiracy theories and misinformation commonly found on social media.

Now, a few senators are attempting to hold these companies accountable for algorithms that promote health-related misinformation by doing away with protections found in Section 230.

The Health Misinformation Act

Introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (D) and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico (D) earlier this week, the Health Misinformation Act would revoke Section 230 protections from social media companies whose algorithms promote and disseminate misinformation to their millions of users.

“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,” said Luján in a statement.

Section 230 has long been used as a shield for social media companies to dodge any liability for what their users are saying on their platforms. Still, with more lockdowns looming due to Americans refusing to get vaccinated, clearly something needs to be done.

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how lethal misinformation can be and it is our responsibility to take action,” said Klobuchar.

Facebook's Response

As the largest social media company in the world by a hefty margin, Facebook is naturally at the center of this new bill. With almost 3 billion worldwide users, the platform has an unprecedented level of influence, and its response to this new bill is nothing if not predictable.

“We have long supported common industry standards and section 230 reform,” said Kevin Martin, Facebook's VP of public policy, in a statement. “We believe clarification on the difficult and urgent questions about health related misinformation would be helpful and look forward to working with Congress and the industry as we consider options for reform.”

At this point, that's all you can really expect from social media companies: lip service and passing the buck. While the onus is certainly on the government to pass laws that promote this kind of action, it would be nice if the tech industry would, just once, take responsibility for their influence in the world and actually do something meaningful about it. We're not holding our breath though.

Representatives from Twitter and YouTube did not respond to the introduction of the new bill in the Senate.

Will this new bill help?

We'd love to be optimistic here. We'd love to say that this bill is going to spur Facebook and other social media platforms to transform their misinformation strategy, tackling vaccine conspiracy theories in an effective and efficient way, eventually paving the way to a fully vaccinated country that can go back to life as we remember it.

Unfortunately, it's probably not going to do that. For one, giving specific exemptions to Section 230 is complicated at best, as specific organizations and individuals will have to decipher what is and isn't health-related misinformation. With social media platforms already struggling to combat everyday misinformation, it's safe to say they don't have the bandwidth to effectively handle this without accidentally censoring valuable health information.

“The bill falls into two interrelated traps,” said Evan Greer, an activist for Fight for the Future, in a statement. “First, that the Federal government can effectively dictate how platforms moderate content, and second, that weakening Section 230 will make platforms moderate more responsibly.”

The greater misinformation problem to solve is that the genie is already out of the bottle. COVID misinformation has run rampant over the last year and a half, and the reality is that a large portion of the population is just not going to get it, regardless of how much misinformation you take down.

Still, it's certainly a step in the right direction. While this specific bill might not be the answer, addressing the problematic nature of Section 230, especially under the guise of COVID misinformation, could be the building block they need to make some concrete changes.

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Conor is the Senior Writer for Tech.co. For the last five years, he’s written about everything from Kickstarter campaigns and budding startups to tech titans and innovative technologies. His extensive background in stand-up comedy made him the perfect person to host tech-centric events like Startup Night at SXSW and the Timmy Awards for Tech in Motion. You can email Conor at conor@tech.co.

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