The Biden administration’s push to weed out COVID-19 misinformation online is spotlighting calls to reform Section 230, while further highlighting the deep partisan divide among lawmakers’ approaches to modify the law that provides tech companies a liability shield.
Critical comments against Facebook made by President BidenJoe BidenKentucky lawmaker faces scrutiny for comparing Fauci to Jonestown cult leader Omar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia Public charter schools group blasts proposed Democratic cut MORE and action taken by Twitter against a controversial lawmaker this week raised the pressure on big tech companies already on defense over their content policies, but also showcased the opposing reasons both parties are concerned.
Biden in recent days joined congressional Democrats’ efforts to press social media companies to take action against misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines. But amid the administration’s push, Republicans are piling on criticism of the Silicon Valley giants and the government-led effort to hold them accountable.
Twitter temporarily suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she’s meeting with Trump ‘soon’ in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) on Monday for sharing misleading claims about the coronavirus, in line with the platform’s policies around posting coronavirus misinformation. The congresswoman shortly after used her active Facebook account to bash the social media company for “censorship.”
Greene does not appear to have posted the same or similar false claims about the coronavirus on Facebook as she did on Twitter that led to her 12-hour suspension.
Meanwhile, Biden on Monday walked back his blunt accusation Friday that Facebook is “killing people” with misinformation about the virus, but continued to press the platform to “do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine.”
A battle is brewing in Washington with both major parties using the tech platform’s supposed removal of misinformation, or lack thereof, to push for an overhaul of a controversial law that provides the platforms a legal liability shield over content posted by third parties. The cross-purposes of the two parties could mean any efforts to reform the law won’t go far, especially in the 50-50 Senate where at least 60 votes are needed to advance most legislation.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides the liability shield, has come under attack by both parties in recent years — albeit for different reasons.
Republicans have centered their push for Section 230 repeal and reform around unsubstantiated claims that tech platforms are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias.
Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnWhite House looks to cool battle with Facebook Republicans raise concerns about Olympians using digital yuan during Beijing Games GOP senators invite Yellen to brief them on debt ceiling expiration, inflation MORE (R-Tenn.), who introduced a Section 230 reform bill last year, wrote to the White House over the weekend condemning the administration for saying it would flag problematic posts to the companies.
“These revelations are deeply concerning. The blatant actions by your administration to work with big tech companies to censor Americans’ free speech are shocking,” Blackburn wrote.
Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeLawmakers unveil measure increasing Congress’s control of war authorizations GOP senators invite Yellen to brief them on debt ceiling expiration, inflation A plan to address the growing orphaned wells crisis MORE (Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee which is also looking to crack down on tech giants, similarly slammed the White House’s actions to pressure Facebook to take a more aggressive approach to removing misinformation.
“They’re a private for-profit corporation that can make its own decisions, but when it’s doing it with collusion in government it looks to me a lot like a First Amendment violation,” Lee said last week on Fox News.
In the House, Section 230 reform is listed as a top priority in tech agendas laid out by Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanOvernight Health Care: Fauci clashes with Paul – again | New York reaches .1B settlement with opioid distributors | Delta variant accounts for 83 percent of US COVID-19 cases Pelosi weighing GOP picks for Jan. 6 probe Fauci: Paul doesn’t know what he’s talking about ‘and I want to say that officially’ MORE (R-Ohio) and Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHouse GOP to launch climate caucus New Alzheimer’s drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing FDA approves first new Alzheimer’s drug in almost 20 years MORE (R-Wash.).
Rodgers slammed the White House’s efforts last week, tweeting: “The answer to speech you may disagree with is always more speech, not less. That is the American way.”
Jordan’s agenda released earlier this month calls for a “statutory basis” for Americans to challenge tech platforms in court for “censorship and silencing of conservatives.”
Similarly, former President TrumpDonald TrumpOn The Money: Schumer pressured from all sides on spending strategy | GOP hammers HUD chief over sluggish rental aid | Democrat proposes taxes on commercial space flights Overnight Health Care: Fauci clashes with Paul – again | New York reaches .1B settlement with opioid distributors | Delta variant accounts for 83 percent of US COVID-19 cases Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of ‘nuclear football’ | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE filed a lawsuit this month against Facebook, Twitter and Google over allegations of censorship following the bans and suspensions put in place against Trump’s account over posts he made about the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
The basis of the argument, that the removal of such content is a violation of the First Amendment, misapplies the right to private companies, and legal experts say the suit will almost certainly be dismissed.
Democrats differ from their GOP colleagues by calling for Section 230 reform in a way that aims to hold the companies more accountable to crack down on certain third party content.
Democratic Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBiden to appoint Big Tech critic to DOJ antitrust role White House looks to cool battle with Facebook The Hill’s 12:30 Report – Presented by Goldman Sachs – Key week for Biden’s infrastructure goals MORE (Minn.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Hill’s Morning Report – Will Schumer back down on his deadline? Schumer sets up Wednesday infrastructure showdown Biden opens new cyber fight with China MORE (Va.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoNumber of nonwhite Democratic Senate staffers ticks up from 2020 Hirono tells Ted Cruz to stop ‘mansplaining’ ‘Killibuster’: Democratic angst grows as filibuster threatens agenda MORE (Hawaii) introduced a bill that would remove some of the protections to allow users who face cyberstalking, targeted harassment and discrimination to seek legal action against the platforms.
Klobuchar used the debate around how platforms are handling coronavirus misinformation, following the surgeon general’s advisory on health misinformation last week, to boost the bill.
“I think we also should look at changing the liability standards when it comes to vaccine misinformation. Senator Warner and Hirono and I already introduced a bill that would focus on discriminatory content and the like,” she said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Facebook has defended its policies against the criticism of vaccine misinformation. A spokesperson for the platform said “more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook,” and more than 3.3 million Americans have used its vaccine finder tool.
But there are at least 284 public and private anti-vaccine Facebook groups spreading COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories, according to a report published Tuesday by the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters. The groups had more than 520,000 combined members, based on the report.
A spokesperson for Facebook said the company is “reviewing the report and will take action against groups that violate our policies.”
Trump’s efforts to repeal Section 230 failed before he left office, but the Biden administration has also indicated it’s open to Section 230 reform.
“We’re reviewing that,” White House communications director Kate BedingfieldKate BedingfieldWhite House uses Trump’s words praising China to slam McCarthy’s Biden criticism Biden, Putin begin high-stakes summit in Geneva Psaki signals she’ll step down next year MORE said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about Section 230.
“They should be held accountable and I think you’ve heard the president speak very aggressively about this. He understands this is an important piece of the ecosystem,” Bedingfield said.
Pressed for more information about the review, a White House official told The Hill: “We are continuing to track the Congressional process to reform Section 230.”
“The President continues to believe that this near-unlimited immunity for platforms must come to an end,” the official said.