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Senators Aim to Hold Social Media Platforms Liable for Public Health Misinformation

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A bill proposed on Thursday would target Section 230.
  • Under the exception, companies will no longer be shielded from lawsuits about misinformation spread on their sites related to public health emergencies.
  • The proposal seeks to address mis- and disinformation, which officials call a “serious threat to public health.”

What This Means For You

When using sites like Twitter and Facebook, be critical of the information you consume about COVID-19 and other public health emergencies. Seek out information from trusted sources, like health experts and reputable media outlets. If you’re not sure whether a piece of information is true, check it with a credible source or two and if you’re unsure, don’t share it.

Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ben Ray Luján on Thursday introduced a bill that aims to hold online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube liable for allowing users to spread misinformation about vaccines and public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, named Health Misinformation Act, targets Section 230 of the Communications Act, which protects internet platforms from lawsuits due to content generated by their users and other third parties.

Klobuchar said the bill is necessary to create a ”long-term solution” after legislators have attempted to make changes through the power of persuasion.

“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. “The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how lethal misinformation can be and it is our responsibility to take action.”

If the bill passes, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must issue guidelines to define “health misinformation.” The bill will seek to remove Section 230's liability shield when a platform's algorithms "promote health-related misinformation related to an existing public health emergency" declared by the HHS secretary.

Grappling With Social Media Platforms

Last week, President Joe Biden told reporters that platforms like Facebook were “killing people.” He later clarified that he wanted Facebook to “do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine.”

In a blog post, the social media giant pushed back against the allegations, saying that 85% of its users in the United States have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, an increase of 10-15 percentage points from January.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD on July 15 published a report recommending that online platforms better monitor and address misinformation, give researchers access to useful data, and amplify information from trusted experts and messengers.

“Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments," Murthy wrote.

The report also provided guidance for educators, health professionals, journalists, researchers, foundations and governments to combat misinformation.

More than half of U.S. adults either believe some common misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine or are unsure whether certain claims are true or not, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And more than 90% of people who refuse to be vaccinated say they are more worried about the vaccine side effects than they are about getting sick with COVID-19 itself, per a YouGov poll.

Fewer than half of Americans over 12 years old are now fully vaccinated and daily cases are once again on the rise, predominantly plaguing unvaccinated people.

In a White House briefing last week, Murthy acknowledged that misinformation is not the only factor leading people to refuse vaccination, but "it is a very important one." He said everyone should be more accountable in sharing information, but those who have larger platforms "bear a greater responsibility."

"We know they have taken some steps to address misinformation, but much, much more has to be done," Murthy said.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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  1. Department of Health and Human Services. Confronting Health Misinformation: The US Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Healthy Information Environment. 2021

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID Data Tracker. Updated July 22, 2021.