Dallas Morning News

By Editorial Board

There is no question that the spread of misinformation on social media is a massive contributor to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in this country.

Despite clear and compelling evidence that vaccination is effective in fighting the disease and safe for those who take it, some 44% of Americans over the age of 12 remain unvaccinated.

Unvaccinated people seem to have a lot of excuses and explanations. And it’s easy to find justifications for those excuses online that do a good job of mimicking science but are, in fact, dangerous garbage.

People have the constitutionally protected right of free speech. And those rights extend to expression online. But that isn’t what this is about.

This is about social media posts that lie about science in a way that can be deadly. And this is about the unusually broad protection that social media companies, including one of the most profitable companies in the world, enjoy from being held to account for disseminating this false and often damaging information.

Members of Congress in both parties, as well as President Joe Biden, agree. And it’s time for them to set aside partisan differences and begin to reform the way social media companies operate for the health and well-being of this country.

Last week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill that we think is a good place to start to form legislation that would curtail the liability protections of social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Klobuchar’s bill would strip online platforms of their immunity from liability when they publish and spread false information related to public-health emergencies.

This newspaper has long called for Congress to review and reform Section 230. The law was conceived in 1996 as a way to help a nascent internet grow without websites having to worry about being sued for every third-party post that appeared on their sites. Browsers needed such protection, for example, to avoid suit for returning results that linked to web pages containing libelous or illegal content.

Few then imagined social media as it exists now. Nor did they imagine that the internet publishing environment would be dominated by a few companies that host third-party posts from billions of people and just as many bots.

In its pre-social media iteration, the internet was composed of far more direct content providers who were and still are responsible for the content they produce. But if Russian bots post fake information on Facebook, that’s not Facebook’s problem — at least not legally.

Klobuchar’s bill is a call to put an end to the free pass social media has gotten. It’s crucial to get this right and to seriously debate how to move forward in reforming 230. Even internet companies have recognized that things cannot go on as they are and have signaled some support for changing the law.

A healthier country will begin with a healthier internet environment, where rights and responsibilities are in better balance under the law.