Grocery store tabloids tout sensationalized headlines that invariably involve at least several exclamation points. I am thinking about the Globe and the National Enquirer and the National Examiner and the Sun and, of course, my personal favorite, the Weekly World News.
I don’t want to condemn these tabloids. I have been known to pick one up and chuckle while waiting in the check- out line while someone fishes out coupons from their handbag.
Who could resist the classic Weekly World News June 1993 tabloid featuring these headlines: “Space Creature Survived UFO Crash in Arkansas!” “Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby (Official Photo!)” “Secret Service Building Special Nursery in White House!”
I must confess I bought that issue. Those headlines were just too rich not to share with a team of folks working on the first Clinton health care reform attempt.
In 1993, most folks understood the total absurdity of the alien baby claim. Sure a few folks took those headlines seriously, but certainly not huge swathes of Americans.
Headlines like that one didn’t trigger discussion in D.C. about censoring the tabloids. If it had come up, most politicians would have agreed that Americans are simply not duped that easily.
As a lifetime, card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I would have opposed efforts to censor the content of any paper, even the tabloids, back in 1993. Any kind of censorship is a slippery slope that can lead to more and more disregard for freedom of speech. Rather than censorship, I trusted the intelligence of my fellow Americans.
Today, I am re-evaluating my absolute position. The advent of social media platforms allows the perpetuation of headlines and “news stories” that can come from any unidentified source. Any social media post — often framed as expert opinion — can be repeated millions of times worldwide. Truth becomes whatever aligns with what you want to believe, because you can find someone on the internet who will validate you. Repetition rather than research is defining reality.
While I remain devoted to a strong First Amendment, I am also an advocate working to advance public health.
I worry about the perpetuation of inaccurate or downright false health care information on the internet that is undermining the collective health and safety of our families. A lot of this false information is out there for the same reason that tabloids have crazy headlines: it attracts attention, draws in more readers and makes money.
I am no longer confident that Americans are able to discern the difference between a tabloid-like story and factual news on the internet. I see information being deliberately manipulated to serve politics, not public health.
I am convinced that the delta variant — the latest contagious mutation of COVID-19 — had time to develop because social media either scared people away from the vaccine or politicized wearing a mask or getting a shot (liberals do and conservatives do not).
Apparently, others share my concerns. A poll conducted in late July by Morning Consult found that more than three in five adults would back a bill making internet platforms liable for the spread of health misinformation in a public health crisis.
So, it’s not surprising that Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced legislation to make social media platforms liable for propagating false or misleading health content during any public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Secretary would pull together a group of unbiased medical experts to define what qualifies as health misinformation.
At this juncture in history, our nation can let false information ferment freely and risk the collective public health, or we can prod tech companies to self-regulate and remove bogus posts as they deem fit. Or we can create a government entity guided by a panel of experts to oversee health information on the internet.
Times are different than they were 28 years ago. Today I believe the First Amendment must be balanced with the need to protect the public health. It is time for Congress to look at the best way to fairly regulate false health information posted on social media.
I urge the West Virginia congressional delegation to take a hard look at this issue and Klobuchar’s bill.
Kathleen Stoll serves as the Policy Director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (wvahc.org) and operates a policy and economic consulting business, Kat Consulting.