As the COVID “Delta” variant continues its spread around the globe, the Biden administration has deployed something of a basketball-style full-court press against misinformation on social media sites. That its intentions are laudable is evident and not at issue. Misinformation on social media and in other venues (such as various cable “news” channels), definitely play a major role in vaccine hesitancy — though it appears that political and peer allegiances play a significant role in this as well, even for persons who have accurate information about the available vaccines.
Yet good intentions by the administration do not necessarily always translate into optimum statements and actions, especially in an ecosystem as large and complex as social media. When President Biden recently asserted that Facebook is “killing people” (a statement that he later walked back) it raised many eyebrows both in the U.S. and internationally.
I implied above that the extent to which vaccine misinformation (as opposed to or in combination with other factors) is directly related to COVID infections and/or deaths is not a straightforward metric. But we can still certainly assert that Facebook has traditionally been an enormous — likely the largest — source of misinformation on social media. And it is also true, as Facebook strongly retorted in the wake of Biden’s original remark, that Facebook has been working to reduce COVID misinformation and increase the viewing of accurate disease and vaccine information on their platform. Other firms such as Twitter and Google have also been putting enormous resources toward misinformation control (and its subset of “disinformation” — which is misinformation being purposely disseminated with the knowledge that it is false).
But for those both inside and outside government who assert that these firms “aren’t doing enough” to control misinformation, there are technical realities that need to be fully understood. And key among these is this: There is no practical way to eliminate all misinformation from these platforms. It is fundamentally impossible without preventing ordinary users from posting content at all — at which point these platforms wouldn’t be social media any longer.
Even if it were possible for a human moderator (or humans in concert with automated scanning) to pre-moderate every single user posting before permitting them to be seen and/or shared publicly, differences in interpretation (“Is this statement in this post really misinformation?”), errors, and other factors would mean that some misinformation is bound to spread — and that can happen very quickly and in ways that would not necessarily be easily detected either by human moderators or by automated content scanning systems. But this is academic. Without drastically curtailing the amount of User Generated Content (UGC) being submitted to these platforms, such pre-moderation models are impractical.
Some other statements from the administration also triggered concerns. The administration appeared to suggest that the same misinformation standards should be applied by all social media firms — a concept that would obviously eliminate the ability of the Trust & Safety teams at these firms to make independent decisions on these matters. And while the administration denied that it was dictating to firms what content should be removed as misinformation, they did say that they were in frequent contact with firms about perceived misinformation. Exactly what that means is uncertain. The administration also said that a short list of “influencers” were responsible for most misinformation on social media — though it wasn’t really apparent what the administration would want firms to do with that list. Disable all associated accounts? Watch those accounts more closely for disinformation? I certainly don’t know what was meant.
But the fundamental nature of the dilemma is even more basic. For governments to become involved at all in social media firms’ decisions about misinformation is a classic slippery slope, for multiple reasons.
Even if government entities are only providing social media firms with “suggestions” or “pointers” to what they believe to be misinformation, the oversized influence that these could have on firms’ decisions cannot be overestimated, especially when some of these same governments have been threatening these same firms with antitrust and other actions.
Perhaps of even more concern, government involvement in misinformation content decisions could potentially undermine the currently very strong argument that these firms are not subject to First Amendment considerations, and so are able to make their own decisions about what content they will permit on their platforms. Loss of this crucial protection would be a big win for those politicians and groups who wish to prevent social media firms from removing hate speech and misinformation from their platforms. So ironically, government involvement in suggesting that particular content is misinformation could end up making it even more difficult for these firms to remove misinformation at all!
Even if you feel that the COVID crisis is reason enough to endorse government involvement in social media content takedowns, please consider for a moment the next steps. Today we’re talking about COVID misinformation. What sort of misinformation — there’s a lot out there! — will we be talking about tomorrow? Do we want the government urging content removal about various other kinds of misinformation? How do we even define misinformation in widely different subject areas?
And even if you agree with the current administration’s views on misinformation, how do you know that you will agree with the next administration’s views on these topics? If you want the current administration to have these powers, will you be agreeable to potentially a very different kind of administration having such powers in the future? The previous administration and the current one have vastly diverging views on a multitude of issues. We have every reason to expect at least some future administrations to follow this pattern.
The bottom line is clear. Even with the best of motives, governments should not be involved in content decisions involving misinformation on social media. Period.