Luján Targets Social Media Health Misinformation In New Senate Bill

By Michael McDevitt
Las Cruces Sun
July 31, 2021

In response to falsehoods and hoaxes, which have flooded the internet during the pandemic, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján is cosponsoring legislation that would remove legal protections for social media companies, which refuse to alter their algorithms to stem or suppress the spread of health misinformation during public health emergencies.

The bill, called the Health Misinformation Act of 2021 and introduced July 22 by Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is meant to target the proliferation of public health misinformation on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.

Luján said he believes misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, is costing lives by making people more hesitant to get the potentially life-saving shot.

“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”

The bill would reform, though only narrowly, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the statute which broadly shields internet companies from legal liability for the content posted by its users. The same statute also allows those companies to remove content without facing legal consequences.

The bill adds an exception to the law by deeming internet platforms “the publisher or speaker of health misinformation that is created or developed through” their services if “the provider promotes that health misinformation through an algorithm used by the provider (or similar software functionality)” in almost all circumstances, save for sorting chronologically on a platform.

“Right now companies are profiting off of using their algorithms to promote content,” Luján said. “What we have not seen is that companies are willing to change their algorithms to stop what is the mass spread and promotion of that dangerous and deadly information.”

If the bill were to go into effect, “the (U.S.) Secretary of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the heads of other relevant Federal agencies and outside experts determined appropriate by the Secretary” would decide what constitutes health misinformation, according to the bill.

The New Mexico Democrat is quick to argue that the bill wouldn’t restrict the spirit of free speech by removing internet posts deemed to include misinformation — just encourage the companies’ algorithms to be turned against promoting the content.

“The legislation does not limit or censor free speech,” Luján asserts. “It makes social media companies accountable in the same way as anyone else.”

He also argued the bill was precisely targeted in reforming Section 230, being one exception that only applies during declared federal public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

And “this only applies when a social media company actively promotes content,” Luján added.

Though when asked if it would be possible to cater an algorithm in this exact way, to specifically suppress health misinformation while leaving other engaging posts unaffected, Luján said he hadn’t asked anyone in the tech world that specific question.

“They choose which content they’re going to promote,” Luján said. “Their algorithms are designed that way … to promote content that will get the most clicks.”

The senator, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, argued social media companies’ moderation methods aren’t transparent or consistent enough.

On Friday, Luján joined congressional colleagues in sending letters to tech CEOs asking them for information on content moderation in response to social media misinformation also circulating among Spanish-speaking Americans and other non-English speaking Americans.

“Congress has a moral duty to ensure that all social media users have the same access to truthful and trustworthy content regardless of the language they speak at home or use to communicate online,” the letters read.