Facebook Whistleblower Claims Renew Calls for Section 230 Repeal. But Who Benefits?
Facebook is firmly planted in the hot seat this week, which, of course, means calls to repeal Section 230 are again at a fever pitch. But, there’s a lot of confusion over what and who the policy actually protects, and who stands to gain and lose in its potential reform.
Section 230, or the Communications Decency Act, is part of Title 47 of the U.S. Code, as passed in 1996 protects online platforms from liability based on third-party and user-generated content.
The exact verbiage is:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
That one sentence has been referred to as the “26 words that created the internet,” and that’s probably a pretty accurate description. Those words allow for the free exchange of all sorts of ideas and information, good and bad.
Without that protection in place, online platform providers like Facebook could find themselves knee deep in defamation cases based on false information shared by the dubious and ignorant alike. In a perfect world, that leniency fosters an environment where people are free to debate, thoughtfully criticize and share information that may not otherwise bust through the mainstream noise.
But this is hardly a perfect world.
That freedom from liability allows social media giants to look the other way when people or organizations spread harmful lies and misinformation on their platforms. If they can’t be sued over the content, they can freely profit from its spread without a care for the toxic and sometimes deadly consequences, which grow increasingly dire.
According to a 2020 University of Colorado Boulder study, Facebook is the biggest culprit in the spread of “fake news,” with users on ideological fringes responsible for sharing nearly half of the false information. And, while people on both ends of the political spectrum share some blame, conservatives are statistically more likely to share fake news.
Some Republican and Democrat politicians have called for Section 230 repeal, making it a bipartisan agenda of sorts, though there are some major differences in their reasoning.
Whistleblower revelations about Facebook’s knowledge of harmful and false content, and the impact it has on its users, has sparked renewed interest in holding the platform liable for lack of moderation and algorithms fed by the worst of humanity.
However, the call for repeal is oddly loudest among those who routinely propagate bad and false information, and benefit from its consequences.
Former President Donald Trump famously threatened to veto a military funding bill in Dec. 2020 unless Section 230 was removed from the U.S. Code — his gripe was driven by a rare social media backlash to his false and inflammatory posts. He accused platforms of violating his right to free speech under the First Amendment. His calls were and are echoed by many of his supporters.
That's… not how the First Amendment or Section 230 work pic.twitter.com/XQXyobFkTi
— Bad 230 Takes (@BadSec230Takes) October 5, 2021
What he, and a good number of other Republicans, don’t seem to understand, or publicly acknowledge, is:
- Social media companies are private businesses and are not beholden to the First Amendment.
- Deplatforming people and organizations for spreading false and misleading information would happen a lot more frequently if social media companies were held liable for the content.
If we recall where the bulk of misinformation is generated from and who spreads it, it stands to reason that conservatives would more often find themselves with suspended accounts.
An interesting, and suspect, turn in the fight over Section 230 is Facebook’s preference for repeal. The largest social media platforms have lobbied and all but begged Congress to upend their model. Now, why would they choose to make themselves vulnerable to civil litigation? The fact is only the largest and most profitable among them would survive reform, because it would take a ridiculous amount of money and resources to moderate the content in a way that reduces legal jeopardy.
The harsh reality the GOP has yet to swallow is that repealing Section 230 would not decrease the “censorship” they allege, but would in fact reduce the number of Republican voices on social media when they’re found to be advancing lies and harmful rhetoric. Same goes for anyone of any party found guilty of those offenses.
A chilling effect would ensue, making it harder to post content haphazardly, which may not be a bad thing for the mental health of the general public. But it won’t give Trump the free rein he wants.