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Top Democrats on Capitol Hill slammed social media companies Tuesday for not taking responsibility for the disinformation rampant on their platforms during the COVID-19 crisis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said social media companies, like Google and Facebook, have built their businesses to "amplify the most inflammatory content, no matter how dangerous or false."
She added that a reckoning is coming, as Congress, employees of these companies, advertisers and the public "work as one to shine a bright light on the division and distribute this information proliferating online. And together, we must send a message to social media executives: You will be held accountable."
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She called on advertisers on social media in particular to step up and use their leverage to force big tech companies to curb disinformation on their sites.
"Know your power," Pelosi said Tuesday during an online forum about the role of social media in spreading disinformation about COVID-19 hosted by George Washington University.
Pelosi was joined by other leading Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee, as well as Reps. David Cicilline from Rhode Island, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, and Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee.
Several medical professionals also joined the discussion to talk about how scams and false information propagated on sites like Facebook and Twitter are harming Americans.
Pelosi, who kicked off the discussion, said the US government has a role to play in enacting new laws and enforcing current ones to protect consumers, but she also called on advertisers to put pressure on companies.
"Advertisers … have power to discourage platforms from amplifying dangerous and even life-threatening disinformation," she said. She added that some advertisers have already begun to express their objections to the big tech companies over disinformation about voter fraud and violence. She said we need more of this.
"We need to empower advertisers to continue to object and to use their power to hold social media companies accountable for their bad behavior," she said. "This is an undermining of democracy. It is a challenge to people's health. It is just wrong."
Disinformation in the age of COVID-19
The discussion comes as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been flooded by a wave of misinformation about the origins of the virus, how it spread and how to treat it, as well as online scams selling faulty face masks and supplements claiming to cure the disease. All of this has drained resources responding to the COVID-19 crisis and distracted from truthful information about how to contain the disease, experts say.
Dr. Sonia Stokes, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine and a fellow at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and division of biosecurity, said at the forum that three months after the US started to go into lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, she's still trying to dispel inaccurate information about the virus and potential treatments that people have read online.
"I have been told that the way to counter medical misinformation is to put out just as much accurate information, but social media is so fast," she said. "I can't keep up…we're fighting, just to keep our patients alive on the front line. We should not be fighting this war on disinformation."
Tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google say they are trying to combat misinformation. They've also said they're taking additional steps to root out false information about the coronavirus.
Facebook said early on in the pandemic that it would hide or remove misinformation about the virus. But the company has a different stance on misinformation as it relates to political advertising. In response to Twitter fact-checking President Trump's tweets, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has maintained that social media companies should not be fact-checking posts from politicians.
President Donald Trump has responded to Twitter's decision to fact-check him by threatening to weaken protections to online companies in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law protects online platforms from being held liable for content their users post. It also allows them to engage in good faith content moderation without the threat of being sued.
Pelosi and other Democrats have taken issue with Trump's executive order, because it directs companies to take no action to weed out false content on their sites. Pelosi said Tuesday that rather than "hold online platforms accountable, the Trump administration is encouraging them to continue to profit off of it."
Still, Pelosi and other Democrats, like Blumenthal and Schakowsky, agree that changes to Section 230 are needed so companies aren't given blanket immunity for allowing false information to circulate on their platforms.
Blumenthal said that the tech companies are "complicit" in the scams and fraud that has been going on through their platforms.
They are "in effect aiding and abetting the spread of deceptive and misleading ads that do grave harm to people or threaten that harm."
Also, on Tuesday Blumenthal and Schakowsky, jointly sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to look into claims from the Tech Transparency Project that consumers searching on Google for information about stimulus checks created by the CARES Act were getting directed to fraudulent advertising results in scams, phony sites and malware.
"Someone searching for stimulus check information has a high likelihood of facing fraud," the letter said. "TTP found that at least 45 of the 126 ads identified clearly violated Google's advertising policies, and only 17 linked to government or other official sources."
The lawmakers asked the FTC to take action against those behind the fraud, but "to truly protect consumers, the FTC must also look at the root of this recurring problem: Google's advertising practices."
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