Skip to content

New York lawmakers propose legislation to combat misinformation on social media

Earlier this month, New York State Senator and Chair of the Committee on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business Anna M. Kaplan, D-North Hills, joined with Assemblymember Patricia Fahy, D-Albany to introduce proposed legislation, S.4511S.4512, and S.4531, that calls for new rules on the moderation of hate speech and misinformation on social media networks. Announced shortly after the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision on Donald Trump- the Board criticized Facebook for its inconsistent application of unclear policies– the bills aim to ensure social media community standards are enforced consistently and transparently.

The bills reflect a growing trend among lawmakers at the state and federal level who seek to require transparency and consistency in content moderation practices on social media. For instance, a proposed bill in California bears some similarity to the New York proposal. “Californians are becoming increasingly alarmed about the role of social media in promoting hate, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and extreme political polarization,” said California Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, D-Woodland Hills, according to the Sacramento Bee. In Congress, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-IL, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-FL, recently introduced a bill that would require more transparency and rule making on social content moderation practices.

I spoke to Senator Kaplan about the New York bills, which are currently in committee. She referred to the real costs of misinformation to society, in particular related to COVID-19 and the false voter fraud claims that motivated the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion; the audio will be available in the podcast this weekend.

Justin Hendrix:

I got in touch in particular because a couple of weeks ago you announced a package of new legislation focused on hate speech and misinformation on social networks. What are you trying to do with these proposed bills?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

I know we’re all very grateful how advanced technology has gotten and how we can get our information or do our work in light of everything that’s going on right now. You don’t have to be in the office, it’s technology that is enabling us to do all of that. Having said that, I also think technology could be used in a very meaningful way, or misused. Misused in terms of the fact that a lot of information is put out there, whether it’s through YouTube or Facebook or Twitter, different social media platforms. And it is really important that those facts are checked. There is a lot of misinformation out there. And as we have seen, misinformation spreads like wildfires or like a virus, and could really cause harm.

We’ve seen that with our election. We’ve seen that with vaccinations, the importance of saying how important and safe vaccines are. Really it is important for these platforms to come up with a community standard where people can post things, but if they are not accurate, someone else can easily report them and they would have a standard way of checking these facts or non verified facts and take them down.

We want to make sure that these platforms are really conducted in a safe manner. Social media should be safer for all of its users. This legislation is basically to come up with standards and guidelines that people can follow and make sure that the companies are held accountable.

Justin Hendrix:

And so you’re targeting three specific things here. You’ve got election misinformation, you’ve got hate speech, you’ve got vaccine disinformation in particular. How do you see this mechanism working? You’re basically putting a kind of requirement on the tech platforms to be more transparent about specifically how they would enforce these things, but I’m also interested in this use of the word transparently. What would transparent enforcement look like from your perspective?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

I believe they should come up with some guidelines. And they should be very clear and they should be transparent for every user. For example, today I was in the car traveling to come to the office for three hours. And if I want to report something, I should be able to do that from my phone because I probably don’t have access to my computer. I remember at one point we tried to report something and because we didn’t have our computer, we were not able to do that reporting.

New York State Senator Anna M. Kaplan

So if you’re able to get that social media service on your iPhone, you should also be able to report on that iPhone. Okay? And for these social media conglomerates, to be able to come up with some guidelines that are easy, clear, for all of their members to follow. And I want to make sure everybody understands- this is not about freedom of speech. There are platforms out there, there are many platforms, that as long as you make it clear to their users, to their members what they stand for, by all means they should go ahead and do so. But in a time that we are seeing a lot of people use social media as a place where they get their news and their information it is really important for all of us to make sure that that news and information is accurate.

Justin Hendrix:

Has there been a cost to New York State of COVID disinformation in particular? 

Senator Anna Kaplan:

I don’t have anything in writing, but I think that is actually very, very clear based on vaccine hesitancy. I think when CDC came out and said, “We’re going to put a hold on Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” we saw a big drop in people going out and getting vaccines. And I think it was really the people who were saying vaccines are not safe coming out again and saying, “See, we’ve told you so.” I think if you look at it, it is really important that we really try to come up with some guidelines, that these conglomerates can come up with some guidelines that people are aware as to what they’re really reading. And sometimes maybe even help them to question what it is that they’re reading and look for other resources to find out that they’re getting the accurate information. That’s really what the goal is. I think these bills are a good start, but let me tell you, it is just a good start. There is so much more that we need to do. This is just opening the conversation.

Justin Hendrix:

So what does happen next? These are essentially a package on some level. They’ve got some duplicative elements. They’ll go into a committee process now. How does it work from here?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

They’ll go into a committee. Once they come out of the committee we would be able to schedule them to come to Senate floor or pass them hopefully on Senate floor. The assembly has to do the same thing. It has to pass by both houses. And once it’s passed by both houses, it will go to the executive for his signature, so that then it would become law.

Justin Hendrix:

And do you have a sense that in the New York legislature that there’s more enthusiasm about tech regulation generally than there has been in past, both on mis and disinformation, but on other issues such as privacy?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

I believe there is. I think based on the last few months, we’ve seen how misinformation can really impact our communities, our people, our residents. So I think there is definitely an enthusiasm for wanting to do this.

Justin Hendrix:

I understand the legislature also has a focus on privacy. Have you been involved in any of those discussions?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

These are conversations that I am having on a regular basis with my colleagues, but I don’t have anything to really report on that yet.

Justin Hendrix:

Have you had any response on these bills or on other tech issues from your constituents? Are folks out there asking for these types of actions? Are you feeling any grassroots energy around it?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

Absolutely. There are a lot of people who have been asking us for this for a while now, but I think just the impact of the last few months of the election, of the vaccine safety, of the misinformation, I think really has highlighted it and I think has brought it up to the surface. So there are a lot of people, a lot of our residents who are asking us to do this. And I think really in light of what happened January 6th, we’re a different country.

Justin Hendrix:

Can you expand on that just a little bit?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

As we’ve all witnessed, we’ve all seen it for ourselves, we’ve all heard it for ourselves, what transpired in Washington, D.C. on the 6th was something that none of us would have ever imagined. And as you’ve seen, they’ve made a lot of arrests. And based on what I’m reading, a lot of people are trying to come up with answers as to why they did this. And they were really pointing to social media. They heard it on social media and they thought that they should be there.

Justin Hendrix:

So you’re taking on election disinformation specifically. I guess in the back of your mind there must be the fear that that kind of thing could happen in New York.

Senator Anna Kaplan:

Yes. I think where we are right now as a nation, I think we are very divided and people go to their own group and stay there. And if there’s a lot of misinformation in that group posting, that’s what they’re getting. Our goal is to make sure whoever posts is posting accurately. And if those posts are not accurate, they should be taken down. And the person who’s posting them should get notified why they were taken down.

Justin Hendrix:

And with regard to just election disinformation generally, have you seen any of that in your own experience? Has there been any disagreement in either of your constituency about the outcome of the 2020 election or anything that you would connect to that?

Senator Anna Kaplan:

I can tell you, I represent a very diverse district in every sense of the word. And yes, there is a group, there is a small minority group that believes the Big Lie. I think you see that throughout this country. And based on everything, the news that I read or I hear, there are people out there, maybe a small percentage, but no matter how small, that believes in the Big Lie even though there’s been 60 cases that have come out and has said, “The election was fair and there was no tampering in the election.” So it is disinformation and the Big Lie that’s getting to these people, and they believe it.

Justin Hendrix:

I hope to maybe be back in touch with you in the future on this and other tech policy issues. I thank you very much.

Senator Anna Kaplan:

Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity. I appreciate it.

.