Disinformation Researchers Fret About Fallout From Judge’s Order

Bond Benton, an associate communication professor at Montclair State University who studies disinformation, described the ruling as “a bit of a potential Trojan horse.” It is limited on paper to the government’s relationship with social media platforms, he said, but carried a message that misinformation qualifies as speech and its removal as the suppression of speech.

“Previously, platforms could simply say we don’t want to host it: ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service,’” Dr. Benton said. “This ruling will now probably make platforms a little bit more cautious about that.”

In recent years, platforms have relied more heavily on automated tools and algorithms to spot harmful content, limiting the effectiveness of complaints from people outside the companies. Academics and anti-disinformation organizations often complained that platforms were unresponsive to their concerns, said Viktorya Vilk, the director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America, a nonprofit that supports free expression.

“Platforms are very good at ignoring civil society organizations and our requests for help or requests for information or escalation of individual cases,” she said. “They are less comfortable ignoring the government.”

Several disinformation researchers worried that the ruling could give cover for social media platforms, some of which have already scaled back their efforts to curb misinformation, to be even less vigilant before the 2024 election. They said it was unclear how relatively new government initiatives that had fielded researchers’ concerns and suggestions, such as the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse, would fare.

For Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the decision on Tuesday underscored other issues: the United States’ “particularly fangless” approach to dangerous content compared with places like Australia and the European Union, and the need to update rules governing social media platforms’ liability. The ruling on Tuesday cited the center as having delivered a presentation to the surgeon general’s office about its 2021 report on online anti-vaccine activists, “The Disinformation Dozen.”

“It’s bananas that you can’t show a nipple on the Super Bowl but Facebook can still broadcast Nazi propaganda, empower stalkers and harassers, undermine public health and facilitate extremism in the United States,” Mr. Ahmed said. “This court decision further exacerbates that feeling of impunity social media companies operate under, despite the fact that they are the primary vector for hate and disinformation in society.”