Social Policy
July 12, 2022

Government Regulation of Social Media and the Internet

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Misinformation has been a major topic of discussion in America since the 2016 Presidential election, when social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter became reservoirs of misleading, and even outright false, posts and messages. Four years later, misinformation still pervades Internet realms, and does so during a time where access to accurate information and true facts is crucial.

As COVID cases in the United States surge, public health officials are urging Americans to get vaccinated in order to stop the spread of the virus. Vaccine hesitancy has been an obstacle to herd immunity since the shots received emergency use authorization from the FDA, and a source of this hesitancy stems from anti-vaccine misinformation circulating on social media. A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that two-thirds of unvaccinated Americans believe myths about the vaccine, from the idea that it causes the COVID-19 virus to the conspiracy that the vaccine contains a microchip meant to track those who receive it. These baseless rumors, which would likely fizzle were they to be spread by word of mouth, have been given a launch pad to proliferate on social media. And while the notion that this misinformation could be swaying the results of American elections is troubling, its damage to vaccination efforts in the United States is proving deadly.

As the COVID-19 crisis again worsens in America, government officials are doing all they can to increase vaccination rates. And while they have used their platforms to encourage and inform their constituents about vaccinations, public servants hold far less influence over the disinformation bred within private social media outlets. 

Government officials’ lack of authority in the area of social media law is due in part to its relative infancy. Public policy experts and lawmakers are just beginning to understand the innerworkings of social media companies, meaning there is very little precedent when it comes to government regulation of social media. One law that has proved troublesome for government officials is the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This law attempts to combat obscene posts and messages from being displayed on Internet platforms, and presents a major roadblock to any future government intervention into Internet affairs; Section 230 states that any Internet service provider cannot be held federally responsible for the content generated by its users. This means that federal government officials cannot take action against major social media companies like Facebook or Twitter for allowing misinformation to spread on their respective platforms - a limitation that severely hinders the government’s ability to combat Internet misinformation.

While there are many obstacles to government regulation of social media, including CDA Section 230 and free speech provisions in the First Amendment, there are ways elected officials can act against the false information posing a dangerous threat to the welfare of American citizens. While the First Amendment protects citizens right to free speech against the federal government, it does not apply to private entities, like social media companies. Thus, creating standards of compliance for these companies to meet regarding the quality of the information shared by their users is a route that would not conflict with provisions in the First Amendment while limiting disinformation on social media websites. Further, politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for Section 230 to be revised so that social media companies can be held accountable for the information published on their platforms. This would open the door for fiercer regulation of misinformation and dangerous posts to be instituted, some argue at the expense of free speech; many policy analysts even surmise that to modify or repeal Section 230 would threaten the very existence of social media. 

The balance between regulation and free sharing of content is delicate, and is harboring increased debate on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers now face time constraints as misinformation still damages COVID-19 vaccination efforts, and the pandemic rages on. An upheaval to the relationship between government and social media is now more important than ever before - an issue that may have been considered trivial in recent years is now, arguably, life-or-death, and American citizens can expect serious changes to come to the social media platforms they frequent.