Biden Administration Should Take a Restrained Approach to Fighting Disinformation

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As the Biden administration counters foreign disinformation, it faces growing calls to impose stricter restrictions on social media and online platforms. While tech companies should do more to fight disinformation, the administration should not require tech companies to censor state-sponsored content from targeted countries. Instead, the administration should enable tech companies to monitor and remove false and misleading news from their platforms. 

Disinformation from both domestic and foreign sources has become an increasingly challenging issue for U.S. politics since the 2016 presidential election. Such concerns range from false claims by domestic users to sophisticated propaganda campaigns by state-controlled foreign outlets like Russia Today (RT) and China Global Television Network (CGTN). Against this backdrop, policymakers increasingly advocate mandatory requirements on tech companies to monitor and censor state-sponsored content from China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries. 

Last month, Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, argued in Foreign Affairs that “the Biden administration should work with other democracies around the world to develop a common set of laws and protocols for regulating Russian government-controlled media, including bots and trolls.” McFaul suggested that online platforms should display content from “reliable news organizations” like the BBC when these platforms show news from Russian sources like RT. Likewise, as Beijing censored coronavirus-related news domestically and executed coronavirus propaganda campaigns abroad, researchers called on tech companies to combat Chinese disinformation. Consequently, many policymakers believe that Congress legislate mandatory requirements for online platforms to monitor government-sponsored news from authoritarian countries. 

While individual companies should consider adopting voluntary protocols to counter disinformation, requiring companies to censor state-sponsored foreign content would be ill-advised for several reasons. First, if Congress requires platforms to display content from “reliable” U.S. (or European) outlets, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will need to decide which news organizations are “reliable.” But neither Congress nor the FCC should determine which outlets are “reliable” and which ones are not, especially in today’s polarized environment. Such a policy would be tantamount to picking national champions for news organizations, which would contravene the market-based approach that the U.S. has historically pursued toward newspapers and online platforms. 

Second, such an approach would be especially concerning given the increasing political biases of American and — to a lesser extent — British and European news outlets. The perceived reliability of U.S. news sources remains heavily dependent on political affiliation — with 93 per cent of Fox News viewers self-identifying as Republicans (or Republican-leaning) and 91 per cent of New York Times readers self-identifying as Democrats (or Democrat-leaning). In Britain, the BBC is increasingly under attack for its alleged left-leaning bias, which recently led its top broadcaster, Andrew Neil, to spearhead GB News (expected to be launched later this year). While readers might perceive outlets like the Financial Times as considerably less partisan, such newspapers often require an expensive subscription. Furthermore, the perceived objectivity of these outlets depends on their editorial stances that can change significantly (as the BBC has allegedly done in the last several years). 

Read the full article at Real Clear Policy.