“Joint Center Testifies Before Congress on Social Media Disinformation, Voter Suppression & Section 230”

Release:

On June 24, Joint Center President Spencer Overton provided expert testimony at a joint congressional hearing entitled “A Country in Crisis: How Disinformation Online is Dividing the Nation.”

During the congressional hearing, Spencer explained that both domestic and foreign actors use disinformation to divide Americans along racial lines, and mentioned a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey that showed 81% of Americans believe that social media companies should never allow intentionally misleading information on elections and political issues. He also explained that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act clearly gives social media companies authority to remove disinformation, and they should use that authority to do a better job at stopping disinformation.

Spencer expressed that while some social media companies don’t remove disinformation because they say they want to “protect speech” and be “viewpoint neutral,” the harms that result from their failure to stop disinformation—such as voter suppression—are not “neutral” for Black communities.

While Spencer disagreed with President Trump’s recent executive order in retaliation to Twitter’s content moderation because it discourages social media from stopping disinformation, he acknowledged that the status quo is not working. He testified that even in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, there exists a real question about whether social media companies will address their own systemic shortcomings and fully embrace civil rights principles.  If legal reforms are needed, he explained that the debates should occur in Congress and should include the voices of communities of color who have been disproportionately harmed by targeted voter suppression and other disinformation campaigns.

The remote hearing was hosted by The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Other expert panelists included Color of Change Senior Campaign Director Brandi Collins-Dexter (testimony here), University of California, Berkeley Professor Hany Farid (testimony here), and DigitalFrontiers Advocacy Principal and Former Chief Counsel for Communications and Technology Energy and Commerce Committee Neil Fried (testimony here).

Read Spencer’s 2-page opening remarks (here), full 22-page testimony (here), and academic research on Section 230 and voter suppression (here).

Spencer’s written remarks note Recommendation 10 of our Fair Elections During a Crisis report:

Leaders in social media, election officials, government leaders, and others should promote the equal protection voting norm, enshrined in the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which ban targeting voters based on race or ethnicity in an effort to suppress or dilute their vote. Social media companies have a unique responsibility to prevent the use of their platforms for efforts that would suppress votes through the spread of misinformation about voting.

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