California bills target social media and medical misinformation

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Two California Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday separately took aim at pandemic misinformation that they say is receiving large audiences and misplaced credibility via social media platforms — dismissing fears that their legislation may include considerations freedom of expression or business confidentiality.

Senator Richard Pan’s proposal, which is still being finalized, would require online platforms like Facebook to publicly disclose how their algorithms work and how they promote user content, including the datasets used and the how they rank the prominence of user posts.

Platforms would also be required to confidentially share more detailed information with researchers, in an effort to create more responsible algorithms.

Assemblyman Evan Low said his bill would categorize doctors’ promotion of misinformation or misinformation about COVID-19 to the public as unprofessional conduct that could result in disciplinary action on the part of doctors. of the California Medical Board.

Although they are separate laws, lawmakers and supporters of the bill say social media has given a tiny minority of doctors an outsized voice and undeserved credibility that has cost lives by turning people off. to get vaccinated or undergo life-saving treatment.

“We want to make sure the public knows how these algorithms and platforms are potentially pushing this information, disinformation, in front of people,” Pan said.

Congress is considering a platform transparency and accountability act with a similar goal at the federal level, Pan said, but he wants California to take the lead.

“Ultimately, we shouldn’t have to wait for whistleblowers like Facebook’s whistleblower for us to understand how online platforms and social media have negatively impacted our lives, including our ability to stop this pandemic,” he said.

Facebook, owned by Meta Platforms Inc., did not immediately comment on the separate legislation. Free speech and online privacy organizations said they had not had time to review the bills, the details of which are still being worked out.

Pan is a pediatrician who has also supported controversial legislation to expand the scope of vaccinations, most recently proposing to end a personal belief exemption in school-based COVID-19 vaccination requirements. Low also promoted legislation that last fall helped draw more than 1,000 people to the Sacramento State Capitol to oppose vaccination mandates.

Dr Nick Sawyer, an emergency physician with advocacy group No License for Disinformation, said Low’s bill targets “a very small number of very well-coordinated, well-funded and very, very active doctors who are spreading the kind of misinformation that is not nuanced at all.

Among other things, in order to impose discipline, Low’s bill would require the medical board to determine that a physician’s misinformation caused a patient to refuse prevention or treatment of COVID-19 that was not justified by the patient’s medical history or condition.

Pan said the council would likely use a peer review process to establish a standard of care. If the board alleges a breach, medical experts would then consider whether the doctor breached that standard.

The California Medical Association has not taken a position on Pan’s bill. But the association’s president, Dr. Robert E. Wailes, said in a statement that misinformation has prolonged the pandemic, “making the work of our frontline health workers more difficult and dangerous while harming health. community”.

The legislation differs from efforts in some other states like Florida and Tennessee, where Republican lawmakers have resisted proposals to discipline doctors.

“It’s not a… a policing of free speech,” Sawyer said. “This is a call for the public to be protected from the dangerous misinformation that patients tell us every day in our emergency departments.

“Medicine obviously changes over time, and we understand that,” Sawyer said, “but a lot of the lies and the rhetoric we hear from these doctors are just plain wrong.”

Pan equated its legislation with common requirements for auto and aircraft manufacturers to disclose important manufacturing details so governments can decide whether they are safe.

“In many ways, Facebook and other social media platforms have left us with no choice but to regulate them by sharing more information about their policies because (a) they won’t do it themselves and ( b) they sue when academic researchers try to examine wrongdoing,” said Kristen Martin, professor of technology ethics at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Tech Ethics Center at Notre Dame, in an email.

She added: ‘I can’t think of another industry that thinks they not only don’t have to identify harm from their products, but are also actively trying to prevent others from testing it.’

Pan’s bill separately had the support of Nathaniel Persily, director of Stanford University’s Cyber ​​Policy Center.

He argued that increased transparency would help outsiders deal with some of the ills of social media and perhaps change corporate behavior while enabling sensible government policies.

“The bottom line here is that we can’t live in a world where Facebook and Google know everything about us, and we don’t know anything about them,” Persily said.

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