Democrats can’t force Facebook to stem COVID disinformation | New
Defeating COVID-19 in the United States is now mired in a partisan information war, a fight President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are ill-equipped to win.
Biden’s struggle to control the coronavirus and vaccine misinformation online was evident in his speech Friday that companies like Facebook Inc. were “killing people.” He begged social media platforms to change and begged the American people not to believe everything they read.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google on Monday said its YouTube video service would begin tagging health videos with information about the source authority and Twitter Inc. said it was working with public health authorities and that it would “continue to take enforcement action on content that violates our COVID.” -19 policy of misleading information.
On Monday night, Twitter banned Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene for 12 hours for misinformation. In a video on Facebook, the first-year Republican slammed the move as social media stretches too far.
“They have censored the Conservatives for far too long. Our voices are the voices they want to cancel and we experience cancellations every day, ”said Greene.
Facebook, meanwhile, launched the counterattack in response to Biden – accusing the White House of “pointing fingers” for not meeting its vaccination target – indicating that the company is already doing everything it is ready to do. to do.
Biden’s comments came after months of meetings with social media companies to tackle disinformation on their platforms, according to an administration official. Discussions with Facebook have become increasingly unproductive in recent months and the administration was unhappy with the company’s responses to requests for more details on its response to inaccuracies and unscientific speculation, the official said. . Still, there was little the White House could do but complain.
Biden backtracked slightly from his earlier comments on Monday, saying online disinformation is the culprit, not the companies themselves. When asked if he would hold social media companies to account, he said he “tries to get people to look at themselves, look at themselves in the mirror” and imagine these lies are going to people. who are dear to them and act accordingly.
Imran Ahmed, head of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said Biden’s plea reflects his frustration with the spread of vaccine inaccuracies online – and his inability to address it.
“This is not only a morally devastating line from the president, it is also a sign of the government’s weakness when it comes to dealing with platforms,” Ahmed said in a telephone interview. “We see the limits of the tools currently available to the government. “
The Biden administration has failed to meet its target of at least 70% of Americans eligible to receive an injection by July 4. Today, 72.3% of the adult population, or 186 million Americans, have received at least one dose, while at least 161 million people have completed the vaccination regimen. The vaccine rollout, however, has stalled, and now the gap between the most and least vaccinated counties in the United States has widened, leaving many communities vulnerable to ongoing epidemics.
A report from Ahmed’s organization, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling harmful online content, identified 12 users who generate 65% of misleading messages about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines.
Much of the problem is political. Republicans in Congress have lambasted social media companies for limiting the voice of some right-wing users who violated company policies. GOP lawmakers like Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn warn that any collaboration between Facebook and a Democratic administration for online news policing amounts to censorship by authoritarian regimes.
This report has also fueled the anger of Democrats who are frustrated that platforms have not taken faster action against those who drive most of the bogus content that has prolonged the pandemic in parts of the United States where reluctance to vaccination is high.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that there was “absolutely no reason they couldn’t better monitor this and pull this shit out of it. of their platforms ”. Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, has repeatedly called for the disbandment of Facebook, the divestiture of the WhatsApp messaging service and the Instagram photo-sharing platform, to impose better policies on business by providing consumers with more choice.
Facebook responded to Biden’s criticism in a July 17 blog post by Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen, saying acceptance of vaccines among U.S. Facebook users has in fact increased. The post described the company’s efforts to present “authoritative information” on COVID-19, help connect people to vaccines, remove “18 million cases of COVID-19 misinformation” and participate in a collection effort. data with Carnegie Mellon University.
Robin Mejia, a Carnegie Mellon statistician who works on the project with Facebook, said the coronavirus survey routinely received 40,000 responses per day – a wealth of valuable information that paints a picture of vaccine acceptance and the spread of the virus in real time. Mejia described the project in an interview as an example of the ability of social media to provide a useful tool for policy makers.
Several bills are languishing in Congress that would change legal protections for content posted and shared on social media platforms, but the proposals lack momentum amid a legislative agenda focused on infrastructure and annual spending. Even if steps to change the legal liability shield known as Section 230 were adopted, it is not clear that they would address the issue of disinformation.
Klobuchar, along with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, introduced a measure to reform Section 230, although the proposal focuses more on content that allows cyberstalking and harassment, rather than disinformation. Other Section 230 bills include a proposal by Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, to hold platforms accountable for how they share and deliver content. Another Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, is said to demand social media companies create consumer protection programs and allow individuals to sue if companies violate those policies or terms of service.
There are limits to what government, including Congress, can do about online content. Eric Goldman, a professor at the University of Santa Clara School of Law, said disinformation about COVID-19 falls under the category of “legal but awful” speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
“Misinformation about vaccines is often constitutionally protected material,” Goldman said. “People get the science wrong all the time. “
Even if Congress reduces Section 230, making companies legally responsible for more user content, it would be difficult for applicants to prove that social media companies are responsible for the consequences of vaccine inaccuracies.
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami Law School, said Congress could pass legislation to ban the spread of disinformation about COVID-19. While the First Amendment protects many types of speech, one law could trump the Section 230 defense of tech companies, paving the way for more legal cases regarding COVID-19 disinformation on social media. Such a law could survive a First Amendment challenge, she said.
“If we had someone who wanted to sell their baked goods and they claimed there weren’t any peanuts, when in fact there are, we wouldn’t let them either”, Franks said. “You cannot lie in a way that causes measurable harm to other people. “
Nonetheless, complaints about what Tories describe as censorship dominated the GOP’s response to Biden’s comments on Friday.
Blackburn sent a letter to Biden on Monday saying his administration’s efforts to “work with big tech companies to censor Americans’ free speech are shocking.” Other Republicans had a similar reaction, including Washington State Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the prominent Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who warned of “abuse of power “from the Biden administration.
The Republican opposition poses a political risk to companies like Facebook, which have been frequently criticized by former President Donald Trump and his supporters for taking action against right-wing users – including Trump himself – who violate company policies. Democrats currently hold the House and Senate with very narrow margins, and Republicans are well positioned to secure a majority in the House in next year’s midterm election.
Major tech platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, faced repeated questions from lawmakers, and the CEOs of all three were called to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on disinformation in March. Frank Pallone, the chair of that committee, and several Democratic senators wrote to Facebook asking for more details on the misinformation about vaccines.
So far, the political frustration with Facebook has had no financial consequences for the company, which has become the fastest company to reach a market value of $ 1,000 billion, just 17 years after its launch. foundation and nine years after its initial public offering.
“Frankly, social media companies benefit from traffic to their websites, whatever motivates it,” Ahmed said. “In a shattered attention market in which there are no consequences for monitoring malignant disinformation, who is going to stop them?”
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