Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Combat Misinformation Could Help Ruin the Internet

It's not a shitposting police, but it still sucks.
Senator Elizabeth Warren holding a microphone and raising her hand.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to fight disinformation online isn't going to stop your friends from tweeting that pee is stored in the balls, even though some people on Twitter are worried that it might. But her plan is still worrying.

The reason why a lot of the internet can legally function is due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 states that providers and users of an "interactive computer service" won't be treated as the publisher of "any information provided by another information content provider." In short, it means that if you post a picture of pig poop balls in the replies to someone's tweet, they won't be able to sue Twitter for hosting that image. Because Twitter or Facebook aren't liable for whatever weird shit you post the internet has become a bastion of creativity and also a quagmire of unreliable information. While Ted Cruz can't sue Twitter for its users spreading a joke that he's the Zodiac Killer, the families of Sandy Hook, Connecticut also can't sue YouTube for hosting Alex Jones's conspiracy theories about the 2012 shooting.

Section 230 is what gives social media the ability to function at all, but that isn't to say that it doesn't have its own limitations. Lawmakers have realized we do need to revisit Section 230, but their legislative approach hasn’t been helpful. The 2018 SESTA-FOSTA laws created an exception in Section 230 that made online platforms legally liable for conversations about sex work, which did not lead to the collapse of trafficking but a dissolution of the tools that sex workers use to keep themselves safe.

Warren, who voted for SESTA-FOSTA, has proposed a plan that seems to have two main parts. One promises to hold people who “knowingly disseminate false information about when and how to vote in U.S. elections.” The other promises to hold social media platforms accountable for disinformation. Both seem like they’d be legislative fixes. While holding individual people accountable could run into First Amendment issues, the obvious way to hold tech companies accountable would be to create more exceptions to Section 230, allowing the government to penalize services that host disinformation specifically about elections. While she said in December that she's had second thoughts about SESTA-FOSTA, her new plan for fighting disinformation is not all that dissimilar from it.

Facebook and Twitter should be held accountable for knowingly letting people spread misinformation, but poking more holes in Section 230 isn't the way to go about it. Penalizing Facebook for letting people post the wrong date for an election absolutely feels like the right thing to do, but I worry that making Section 230 any more porous will just turn the law into meaningless swiss cheese.

Some lawmakers see SESTA-FOSTA as a usable workaround for penalizing tech companies. In 2018, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said that he wanted to see a similar bill aimed at drug trafficking during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on social media. It's unsurprising that Warren is also testing the waters for another exception to Section 230. Joe Biden wants to do away with it entirely, specifically referencing misinformation on Facebook as one of the reasons. Despite how noble the reasons are, I don't think chipping away at this building block of the Internet will result in much of anything except showing the government a way to do away with it entirely.