Tech Policy

Joint Center President Answers Additional Questions from Members of Congress on Disinformation and Section 230

Joint Center President Spencer Overton provided additional written responses to questions from Members of Congress after his testimony at the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing entitled, “A Country in Crisis: How Disinformation Online Is Dividing the Nation.”

In his responses to the follow-up questions, Spencer made the following points:

  • Congress should not eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but should explicitly state what is already the law—that Section 230 does not provide a defense to federal and state civil rights claims when social media companies make a “material contribution” to the underlying discrimination when they target (and/or deliver) employment or housing ads away from communities of color and other protected groups, and when they target (and/or deliver) voter suppression ads toward Black users and other protected groups.
  • The Barr Justice Department’s proposed replacement of “objectionable” with “unlawful” in Section 230 would discourage social media companies from content moderation, which would undermine democracy by effectively promoting disinformation, polarization, and suppression.  These proposed changes would facilitate Russian interference in the upcoming election.
  • We want platforms to invest in tools and technologies that minimize disinformation and suppressive content. Many platforms currently invest in these tools to moderate pornography to maintain advertisers and enhance their bottom line, and we want them to do the same for voter suppression, civil rights violations, white supremacy, and other content that marginalizes underserved communities.
  • Census disinformation threatens to result in an undercount of underserved communities, which would fall short of the constitutional mandate that the apportionment of Representatives be based on “persons” counted by a census conducted in such a manner that Congress directs by law.
  • Proposed legislation to ban the microtargeting of political ads has laudable objectives, but we should ensure that the bill does not prevent less wealthy candidates that lack resources for television ads from targeting their supporters online and mobilizing them to the polls. For example, if I’m the only African American candidate in a congressional district where African Americans make up 25 percent of my district’s population and 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, I might want to spend my limited budget in the Democratic primary contest to target social media ads so that each African American Democratic voter sees my social media ads 20 times, rather than being forced to have all voters (including Republicans) see my social media ads 5 times.
  • Social media companies need much more internal civil rights expertise with regard to establishing norms and developing those norms over time in response to evolving attempts to suppress votes, promote white supremacy, and violate civil rights.

Read Spencer’s full written responses to the follow-up questions (8-pages) here.

Spencer’s opening remarks can be seen below, and Spencer’s 2-page opening remarks, full 22-page testimony, and academic research on Section 230 and voter suppression can be found here.