Repeal Sec. 230: Why Democrats should call Trump's bluff on $2,000 COVID relief checks

Donald Trump has finally signed the emergency COVID relief and government funding bill he had attempted to blow up last week. In the meantime, after House Republicans blocked a Democratic attempt to pass $2,000 direct payments - something Trump had demanded in his address threatening to derail the bill - the House is set for a roll call vote to pass the same on Monday.

Trump, who had never actually wanted a $2,0000 direct payment but sought merely to use it as a convenient excuse to cause chaos and punish Republicans he sees as insufficiently cultish, could not stand it that Democrats took his ask for $2,000 and rammed the Republicans with it. Republicans who run the Senate are upset by it, too. So they have come up with a new political ploy: add something of a poison pill to the $2,000 payments to make Democrats reject it. At least in the Senate, where Mitch McConnell still runs the show, they can do it.

According to Republican Sen. Josh Howley of Missouri, the Senate Republican leadership will bring to the floor votes on increasing the COVID relief bill's $600 direct payments to $2,000 as well as repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Sec. 230 is a simple part of the US code that essentially allows social media companies to exist in their current form. Subsection (c)(1) of 230 declares that interactive service providers cannot be considered publishers of information posted by others on their platforms, essentially exempting them from liability for that content, and subsection (c)(2) exempts those providers from liability for the way they choose to moderate that content. This is why Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies can monetize content created and shared by their users and create algorithms designed to promote sensationalism, both without worrying about legal liability.

Trump has been upset at Sec. 230 for a long time, charging that it makes it easy for social media companies to hold him accountable, and specifically for Twitter to label his lies. Conservatives in Congress have similarly complained that Silicon Valley big tech companies use Sec. 230 to "silence" right-wing voices, although consistently, false right-wing content rank at the top of viral stories on Facebook. It is the exemption from liability based on moderation decisions of social media companies that the far-right loathes.

According to Sen. Howley, Republicans in the Senate will seek to increase the direct payment as well as repeal 230, believing that the 230 repeal will serve as a poison pill for Democrats. It is unclear whether McConnell plans on introducing two separate bills or one with both provisions, but from the GOP vantage point, it would make sense to present it as one bill, since Democrats would otherwise be free to vote to give Americans $2,000 without having to vote to repeal Sec. 230. If the two are presented as one bill, Republicans would hope to blame Democrats for blocking the payments to protect tech giants.

If McConnell presents the provisions as one bill, Democrats should call his bluff and vote for a bill that both increases the direct payment to $2,000 and repeals Sec. 230. If it passes the Senate, the Democratic House should immediately take up and pass the bill, and force Trump to sign it.

So, am I saying that Democrats should allow Republicans to use the $2000-payments to repeal Sec. 230 and hand Trump a victory on his pet issue?

Yes.

Yes, only if the entire Sec. 230 is repealed. As long as Republicans offer a bill that repeals the provision that allows social media companies to disclaim liability for content published on their platform along with eliminating liability protection for how they moderate content, Democrats should take them up on it.

It is true that should Sec. 230 be repealed wholesale, the entire landscape of social media will change drastically. But it won't be all bad, or even really bad at all, for those of us who wish for the country's political discourse to be less polarized and more productive.

The immediate effect of a Sec. 230's repeal will be that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler will become liable for content users post on their platforms. That means that they can no longer use their algorithms to advance the most extreme propaganda to get clicks, make out like bandits, and not be held accountable for it. In fact, Parler, which is almost exclusively filled with right-wing, tinfoil-hat, libelous garbage, would almost immediately shut down if the rest of us could sue Parler for the content they publish the same way someone could sue the New York Times or other news outlets for publishing harmful lies.

Social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter, possess the tools to deploy content monitoring and moderating tools at a much greater scale than they currently care to. The same artificial intelligence technology that matches your social media feed with what you are likely to be drawn to and click on with alarming accuracy can also easily decipher between legitimate news content and The Daily Caller. They don't do so now, because there is no financial incentive to direct their users to factual content as opposed to clickbait, conspiracy-theories, and confirmation bias. Should Sec. 230 be repealed wholesale, social media giants may well be forced to clean up your newsfeeds, more actively cleanse their platforms of harmful content, and turn away content that refuses to demonstrate even the bare minimum of fealty to tacts.

The proof that large social media companies absolutely have the tools to police content in almost any way they want is the fact that they have no problem complying with censorship demands in multiple countries, generally to the satisfaction of the censoring governments.

As a corollary benefit, they may well have to refuse to publish content from sources that frequently publish conspiracy theories and political propaganda, which would dry up referral traffic to extremist channels and websites, hopefully putting more than a few on both political extremes out of business.

Although the right is the largest offender, it is far from the only entity to use social media to manipulate, threaten, and spread disinformation. Being a social media influencer is far cooler among a certain sect of the left than being good legislators, and they have set on convincing their followers that everyone who doesn't agree with them is a corrupt, compromised corporatist. Trending things on social media and going viral have become a substitute for fact-finding and legislative productivity, and it has only been destructive to this country.

Being liable for what others say on one's platform for a sizeable company is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be extremely helpful. After Fox Business, Newsmax, and other right-wing outlets aired hundreds of segments with guests who accused voting machine companies of committing election fraud through altering votes, collaborating with foreign entities and governments, and more, voting machine manufacturers Smartmatic and Dominion threatened to sue the stations for defamation and demanded that they air segments informing their viewers that there is no basis in fact for those accusations.

Guess what? They did, despite the initial justification that their guests, and not the stations, were responsible for any such defamation.

But the same purveyors of disinformation on social media go largely unchecked, because social media companies themselves cannot be held accountable, and suing each individual content creator (in the above analogy, 'guests') or sharer is a fruitless exercise in whack-a-mole to the trillionth power.

It does not have to be this way. Social media companies are some of the largest conglomerates ever to have existed on this planet, and they should not be exempt from the social responsibility to uphold the interests of civil society.

Importantly, it should be noted that liability would be limited to cases of libel, defamation, and other legally defined offenses that cause harm, not a blanket slate and a free-for-all, nor could social media companies actually be sued for moderating content to protect themselves from lawsuits or their users from disinformation.

Contrary to the popular conception that a repeal of Sec. 230 would open the floodgates of right-wing content-creator lawsuits against social media giants because of perceived unfairness in content policing or moderation, even without Sec. 230 social media companies would remain protected by a thing called Citizens United.

Though the case was limited to election spending, the Supreme Court held in Citizens United that corporations had a right to first-amendment free speech, that spending their money was a free-speech activity protected by the first amendment, and that therefore, aside from being limited on coordination, there could be no limit on that speech. It would appear to flow that corporations also have the first amendment, free-speech right to determine how to police content on their own platforms.

So hold social media companies accountable for their bread and butter: the way they choose to propagate content. Reduce the influence of clickbait headlines. Take the air out of the political extremes.