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Senators target Section 230 to fight COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

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A new bill would make Facebook liable for misinformation

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

As coronavirus cases rise in unvaccinated populations, Democratic senators are introducing a new bill Thursday that would strip away Facebook and other social media platforms’ Section 230 liability shield if they amplify harmful public health misinformation.

The Health Misinformation Act, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) Thursday, would create a carveout in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act opening social media platforms like Facebook up to lawsuits for hosting some dangerous health misinformation. The bill directs the Health and Human Services secretary to issue guidelines on what should be classified as “health misinformation.”

The carveout would only apply in situations where online misinformation is related to an existing public health emergency like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as declared by the HHS secretary. It would only open a platform up to liability if the content is being algorithmically amplified, not through “a neutral mechanism, such as through the use of chronological functionality.”

“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans. These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation,” Klobuchar said in a statement Thursday. “The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how lethal misinformation can be and it is our responsibility to take action.”

It’s not clear that removing Section 230 protections would have the effect lawmakers intend. Section 230 protects platforms from liability for illegal content hosted on their platforms — but misinformation is not illegal in itself. As a result, it’s unclear what a potential lawsuit against Facebook for misinformation would look like, even once the protections of Section 230 are stripped away.

In a statement Thursday, Facebook VP of public policy Kevin Martin voiced optimism about the bill. “We have long supported common industry standards and section 230 reform,” Martin said. “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.”

The bill’s introduction comes just a week after the Biden administration issued a new report calling out vaccine misinformation on social media. The report called for an all-of-society push to address coronavirus misinformation, including new policy recommendations for companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The report didn’t mention Section 230 but suggested that platforms redesign their algorithms to “avoid amplifying misinformation” and to build more “friction” into sharing functions to urge users to avoid sharing false information.

Shortly after the report’s release, White House officials and President Joe Biden called out Facebook specifically for its role in amplifying vaccine misinformation. Last Friday, Biden told reporters that platforms like Facebook were “killing people” by platforming false vaccine information. A Facebook spokesperson responded, saying, “The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”

On Monday, Biden walked back that statement, saying that misinformation was “killing people,” not Facebook itself. Still, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told MSNBC Tuesday that the administration was reviewing Section 230 in order to determine a means of combating COVID-19 misinformation.

“Certainly they should be held accountable,” Bedingfield said of social media companies Tuesday. “It is a big and complicated ecosystem, and everybody bears responsibility to ensure that we are not providing people with bad information about a vaccine that will save their lives.”

Updated 7/22/21 at 7:07PM ET: Added a statement from Facebook.