Tech Policy

Joint Center President Analyzes Key Issues Regarding Section 230 and the 2020 Election

Joint Center President Spencer Overton provided analysis on key issues regarding Section 230 and the 2020 election at the Knight Foundation and Gallup’s webinar to share new findings in their report, American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy. See his opening remarks below:

First, policymakers and industry stakeholders need to understand Americans have strong feelings on protecting democracy. For example, the survey results show that 84% of respondents believe that social media companies should be liable for intentionally misleading information on elections and political issues.

Second, policymakers and industry stakeholders need to understand that targeted election ads can result in not just polarization or foreign interference–but real racial discrimination.  For example, while African Americans make up just 13% of the U.S. population, in 2016 Black audience segments accounted for 38% of the Facebook ads purchased by the Russian Internet Research Agency, 47% of the user impressions, and almost 50% of the user clicks. Similar trends occurred on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. While the Russian Agency also targeted other groups in the U.S., those ads did not discourage readers from voting – they weren’t focused on voter suppression. We have also seen similar discriminatory ad targeting that steered housing, employment, and other economic ads away from Black users.

Third, policymakers and stakeholders need to understand that many social media companies—through their ad targeting and delivering based on race—make material contributions to discrimination—it is not just the third-party speakers.  The data collected and the algorithms used to determine which users will see which ads are something that social media companies control, and third party advertisers generally have no real input into which users will actually see an ad.

Finally, in terms of solutions, policymakers and stakeholders should hold hearings and request briefings from social media companies on what steps they are taking to stop voter suppression, and obtain and examine data from what happened in the 2018 election. In terms of reforms, Congress could explicitly add federal and state civil rights claims arising from online ad targeting to the list of other exceptions that do not enjoy 230 immunity, like federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and a few other areas. Congress could also simply limit Section 230 immunity to those platforms that make reasonable efforts to block illicit content, as Danielle Citron and Olivier Sylvain have proposed.

Additional information on his issue can be found in Spencer’s article that was published in the UC Davis Law Review.