Technology companies have dominated the worlds of news and politics. As people’s consumption of fast-circulating content online increased throughout the pandemic, much of it were misleading posts about the coronavirus vaccines. This has led to a demand from American politicians to revoke or modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1934, the law that protects internet companies from liability and allows freedom to moderate any content uploaded.
Major platforms are protected under this law by not being liable for the offensive content users posts on their site and continues to circulate daily. In other words, a user can get sued for a specific tweet but not Twitter. Internet companies also have the freedom under this law to restrict access to any posts that they consider to be harmful, as long as their action is taken in good faith.
Many Republican politicians criticize this law and are concerned that too many posts are being removed as a way to “censor” conservative views. While on the other hand, Democrat leaders worry that harmful content is not being removed enough and causing danger to users.
The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee faced off with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during the first hearing since the rollout of the vaccine. Members of Congress criticized the tech companies for their handling of misinformation and extremism on their platforms. Most of all, for their lack of regulation when it comes to misinformation about coronavirus vaccines on their sites.
Articles that falsely claim the vaccine has caused deaths have been viral and highly engaged this year. According to recent data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence that connects deaths directly to the vaccines. These dangerous falsehoods cause people to become hesitant about taking the vaccine, which can lengthen the duration of the pandemic while the country works to prevent further coronavirus deaths.
Tech giants have put certain policies in place to prevent further vaccine misinformation but have failed to strictly enforce those policies. Imrad Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said, “They have all failed to remove the accounts of prominent anti-vaxxers who have repeatedly violated their terms of service.” Research carried out by the CCDH, found that there are only twelve anti-vaxxers with large audiences who produce the majority of Covid-19 misinformation. One of the biggest influences in spreading anti-vax content is Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who was banned from Instagram but continues to violate vaccine misinformation policies on other platforms.
Ahmed also stated, “Anti-vaxxer accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers.” Additional CCDH research found that the anti-vaxxer movement is worth almost $1 billion a year to big tech.
For years, social media companies have been blamed by Congress and tech advocates for prioritizing ad revenue and engagement over rooting out misinformation that harms users. The algorithms on these platforms rely on likes, comments and shares from viral posts that magnify misinformation. By continuing to recommend the same type of misleading content to users, social media companies gain profit and that plays a big role in their lack of action.
Tech companies were already under scrutiny for not taking down election conspiracy theories that led to the Capitol Hill attack on January 6, which was planned by far-right media accounts on their sites. In the aftermath, Twitter permanently suspended Donald Trump’s account, along with 70,000 other users, “due to the risk of further incitement on violence.” He also lost accounts on YouTube, Snapchat, Twitch, Spotify, Shopify, Facebook, and more. This raised the question of why tech giants choose to wait or avoid deplatforming hateful and threatening content.
Many on the right believe the ban raised concerns about free speech and censorship over conservatives but privately owned social media companies have legal rights to decide what content to allow or delete from their sites. For this reason, the First Amendment only limits government action and does not apply to these private corporations.
Far-right users are seeking other smaller platforms that are alternative to mainstream social networks, where they engage with others who share their same extremist views without the “censorship” they perceive on other bigger sites. The conservative site Parler was suspended by Google and Apple for showing graphic violence, hate speech, and misinformation that helped incite the Capitol’s insurrection. However, there are still a number of right-leaning sites like QAnon, that continue spreading dis-misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theory media that gets consumed by millions of Americans.
Politicians introduced a number of proposals to change Section 230 such as requiring more transparency about content moderation, but they have yet to come to an agreement with tech companies over any potential changes. Facebook announced days leading to the hearing that it had removed 1.3 billion fake accounts and Twitter said it would start to apply warning labels before users click on vaccine misinformation. While the platforms argue they have done enough, Congress plans to continue pushing forward on holding platforms accountable.
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