Law in the Internet Society

Should Social media platforms be held accountable for false news?

-- By EstherStefanini - 22 Nov 2020


Whilst I have been recently able to pry myself from using Instagram (I abandoned Facebook several years ago), I have failed to reduce my Twitter usage. It acts as a messaging platform, source of entertainment for me and most importantly, is my source for news and global affairs commentary. During the current pandemic, the site has been flooded with tweets about COVID-19: suddenly every user is an expert on transmission rates and the apparent uselessness of mask-wearing. The amount of conflicting information on such an important topic troubled me and led me to start double-checking the accuracy of tweets by searching more reputable news sites for corroboration.

Many other young people rely on social media for news consumption – about 48% of 18-29 year olds in the US primarily consume news content this way. In my experience, I often resorted to Twitter because of the short and snappy tweet lengths, variety of tweet topics and the ability to instantly comment and interact with other users – I can consume as much news in as little time as possible and discuss it with people my age around the globe. But this pandemic has shown me the risk of relying on a site like Twitter for accurate information – the platform is saturated with misinformation, to the extent that there have been calls for such platforms to be held accountable for being “responsible for thousands of [COVID] deaths”. However, this is a dangerous demand to make. I will explore the effects of holding social media platforms accountable and demonstrate that other solutions should be utilised.

Should we censor misinformation?

Social media platforms currently hold no responsibility for any falsehoods posted on their site as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996 protects them from liability for content published by third parties. Regardless, platforms do have some restrictions - they typically restrict threatening language and hate speech, including race, age, and disability discrimination. This type of censorship is perfectly legal as private platforms are not subject to the First Amendment. Furthermore, it is generally expected by the public. As such, it is not unreasonable to demand that platforms also censor content that is deemed to be false, especially if it relates to politics or the COVID-19 pandemic. The business model of social media (relying on shares and likes) the almost-addictive nature and the propensity of users to believe everything at face value, creates a platform in which users are easily influenced, even without realizing it. Hence, there is a genuine life-threatening risk if we do not limit posts that claim that the COVID vaccine contains tracking microchips or the pandemic is a hoax and hospitals are in fact empty. Despite this, I do not think social media platforms should censor such content and we should be very hesitant before suggesting censorship of misinformation is the best solution.

Mass censorship of false news on social media is ideal but impractical. Platforms would have to rely on user reports and detection by algorithms to recognise ‘fake’ posts and subsequently run them through a fact checker. However, algorithms cannot pick up every single questionable post - many will fall under the radar due to the sheer volume of content that is uploaded every day. Even now, death threats which have been banned for some time and are meant to be removed instantly, sometimes go undetected. Similarly, some posts may be censored wrongly thereby causing posts that are actually factual or merely opinion to be wrongly removed from the platform. Moreover If platforms commit to banning misinformation, any inaccurate posts that are not flagged and left on the site will then be considered reliable and accurate which defeats the purpose of such censorship. Realistically, such censorship would not invoke confidence in users and create a more reliable platform. Rather, it would be likely to lead to mass migration to other platforms such as Parler, the controversial meeting place of many far-rights and Nazi affiliates. Instead, we must emphasise that social media platforms are not reliable news sources! We must educate and we must highlight the falsehoods that are posted. Flagging such posts with warning labels is one way to achieve this.

What is the other solution?

Platforms have come up with a halfway solution which is probably the most appropriate method – flagging fake news. Instagram, a subsidiary of Facebook, marks suspicious posts with a “false information” label. Anyone can report a post that sounds suspicious, which will cause it to be checked by an independent party. Instagram states they “work with 45 third-party fact-checkers across the globe who are certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network to help identify, review and label false information”. Instagram’s labelling goes a step further than Facebook – marked posts are blurred out until users click ‘view post’ after they understand that it may contain false information. They also make it harder to find the post by hashtag search and it will not show up in the ‘Explore’ page. Twitter caught up with the other major platforms this year, introducing labels and warning messages and affiliated links for users to find out more. Tweets mentioning COVID-19 particularly came with links to global and health information. Unlike Facebook, Twitter does flag tweets made by politicians and public officials (Instagram and Facebook do not) – dozens of tweets published by Trump have been marked as ‘disputed’ or ‘false’, including his recent claim that he “won the election”.


Social media platforms should not be held accountable for false news and made to censor such content. Fake news existed before social media and it will continue to exist no matter what solution we implement. Instead, we should teach future generations to be extra prudent on the internet – do not believe everything you read. Be wary and double check stats that sound wrong with a more reputable site. Maybe avoid reading news on social media altogether – I, personally, no longer look for COVID updates on Twitter as I found the proliferation of warning labels and links to more information offputting and rely on traditional media outlets.
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r3 - 05 Jan 2021 - 00:05:21 - EstherStefanini
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