October 28, 2021

Social Media: Misinformation and Content Moderation: Issues for Congress (New Report from the Congressional Research Service)

From the Congressional Research Service Report (35 pages; PDF; R46662):

Social media platforms disseminate information quickly to billions of global users. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2019, 72% of U.S. adults used at least one social media site and that the majority of users visited the site at least once a week.

Some Members of Congress are concerned about the spread of misinformation (i.e., incorrect or inaccurate information) on social media platforms and are exploring how it can be addressed by companies that operate social media sites. Other Members are concerned that social media operators’ content moderation practices may suppress speech. Both perspectives have focused on Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. §230), enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which broadly protects operators of “interactive computer services” from liability for publishing, removing, or restricting access to another’s content.

Social media platforms enable users to create individual profiles,form networks, produce content by posting text, images, or videos, and interact with content by commenting on and sharing it with others. Social media operators may moderate the content posted on their sites by allowing certain posts and not others. They prohibit users from posting content that violates copyright law or solicits illegal activity, and some maintain policies that prohibit objectionable content (e.g., certain sexual or violent content) or content that does not contribute to the community or service that theywish to provide. As private companies, social media operators can determine what content is allowed on their sites,and content moderation decisions could be protected under the First Amendment. However, operators’ content moderation practices have created unease that these companies play an outsized role in determining what speech is allowed on their sites, with some commentators stating that operators are infringing on users’ First Amendment rights by censoring speech.

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Congress has held hearings to examine the role social media platforms play in the dissemination of misinformation. Members of Congress have introduced legislation, much of it to amend Section 230, which could affect thecontent moderation practices of interactive computer services, including social media operators. In 2020, the Department of Justice also sent draft legislation amending Section 230 to Congress. Some commentators identify potential benefits of amending Section 230,while others have identified potential adverse consequences.

Congress may wish to consider the roles of the public and private sector in addressing misinformation, including who defines what constitutes misinformation. IfCongress determines that action to address the spread of misinformation through social media is necessary, its options may be limited by the reality that regulation, policies, or incentives to affect one category of information may affect others. Congress may consider the First Amendment implications ofpotential legislative actions. Any effort to address this issue may have unintended legal, social, and economic consequencesthat may be difficult to foresee.

Direct to Full Text Report
35 pages; PDF.

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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