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At the start of President Obama’s first term, social media was still an emerging phenomenon. Facebook had reached its first 100 million users, Twitter was a nascent platform, and Instagram did not yet exist. Still, social media was already changing the way people communicated with one another on a massive scale, with the 2008 election dubbed “the Facebook election,” in part due to Obama’s enthusiastic and effective use of the platform in his campaign to raise funds and connect with voters.
Since his presidency, Obama has adopted a critical view of social media. In an address delivered at Stanford University on April 21, 2022, he blamed social media companies for spreading misinformation and disinformation online, thereby weakening democracy, and called for greater regulation, including changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law states that online platforms are not liable for their users’ speech.
Section 230 has come under fire from both sides of the aisle in recent years. In his address, Obama stated that social media platforms have not been neutral actors, a claim many Republicans and Democrats would agree with. However, Republicans have argued that social media platforms show liberal bias and call for companies to remove less content, particularly controversial political content. This is the polar opposite of Democrats’—and Obama’s—claims that companies are not removing enough content, failing to stem the tide of online misinformation and disinformation. While many Republicans believe social media companies skew too far left, many Democrats believe these companies cater too much to conservative views. This lack of consensus has prevented Congress from advancing bipartisan solutions to online misinformation and disinformation.
Blaming social media for weakening democracy globally also seems to be an incomplete portrayal that ignores many other factors at play. There are several trends behind the recent global decline in democracy and rise in authoritarianism, including the promotion of autocratic norms by actors such as the Chinese Communist Party, leaders dropping the pretense of democratic elections in countries such as Russia, coups, and power grabs in countries such as Myanmar and Sudan, undemocratic leaders and their supporters in democratic environments, alliances between authoritarian leaders, and the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Social media might make for a popular scapegoat but ultimately draws attention away from the root causes of these problems, undermining efforts to develop real solutions to these worrying trends.
In discussing social media reforms, Obama echoed proposals to strip Section 230 protections for companies that use targeted advertising, even though targeted advertising has little or nothing to do with the kinds of speech on social networks. Targeted advertising enables social media platforms and countless other apps and websites to offer their services for free or at a lower price. Obama’s proposed change would significantly raise costs for social media companies by increasing costs associated with one of their major sources of revenue—targeted advertising—and opening them up to a series of expensive and frivolous lawsuits that Section 230 currently allows them to dismiss. These higher costs would likely be passed on to consumers.
Some of Obama’s suggestions, such as increased transparency in social media platforms’ content moderation decisions, would help make the Internet a better, safer place. But others, such as stripping Section 230 protections for companies that use targeted ads, would fail to solve the problem of online disinformation and misinformation, damage the Internet economy, and have particularly detrimental effects on low-income users.
There is plenty of room to reform the laws that currently govern the Internet in the United States, but Congress should carefully weigh the potential risks any reform might pose to innovation and the economy instead of simply trusting, as Obama claims, that it will all turn out for the better.