A week after Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared health misinformation an “urgent threat” to the US public, Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico have introduced new legislation that would modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to strip liability protections from technology companies if their platforms help spread misinformation during a health crisis.
If passed, the Health Misinformation Act of 2021 would create an exception to Section 230 that would see social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter “treated as the publisher or speaker of health misinformation” when their platforms algorithmically amplify misleading health content. What falls under the definition of health-related misinformation would be decided by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The exception would only apply during a public health crisis, which the HMS Secretary would have to declare beforehand.
In establishing a rationale for the change, the bill cites a joint report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch that found that as much 73 percent of vaccine misinformation on Facebook can be linked to a group of 12 individuals known as the “disinformation dozen.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently referenced that same report, saying that many of those individuals are still active on the social network.
“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,” Senator Klobuchar said in a statement. “The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how lethal misinformation can be and it is our responsibility to take action.”
The bill’s introduction also follows a recent statement made by President Joe Biden. He said platforms like Facebook were “killing people” by not doing more to stop vaccine- and health-related misinformation. “We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by facts,” a spokesperson for Facebook told Engadget after Biden made his comments. “The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.” The president later walked back his statement, noting the people using the platform to spread their misinformation were the ones doing harm but reiterated his belief that Facebook could do more to combat what was happening.
“We have long supported common industry standards and section 230 reform,” Kevin Martin, vice-president of public policy at Facebook said after the news broke. “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.”
Update 10:54PM ET: Added comment from Facebook.