Senator Klobuchar’s big miss on ‘misinformation’

Senator Amy Klobuchar speaking with supporters at a meet and greet at the Northside Cafe in Winterset, Iowa by Gage Skidmore

At a recent conference hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Senator Amy Klobuchar failed to answer a reporter’s direct question about the nature of her proposed bill, the “Health Misinformation Act,” leaving open the possibility of government and bureaucratic control over what constitutes internet misinformation and who has the power to make that decision.

Sitting on a panel at the “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference on April 8, Klobuchar was asked a direct question about her proposed bill by Chicago Thinker co-founder and Managing Editor Evita Duffy: “If I were to say there are only two sexes — male and female — would that be considered misinformation that you think should be banned speech on social media platforms?” Klobuchar proceeded to give a light chuckle and insisted it pertained to vaccine misinformation during a “public health crisis.” She refused to define misinformation and the parameters under which the proposed bill’s carveout would go into effect.

Klobuchar’s bill seeks to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives internet platforms protection from civil liability for published content. The amendment creates a carveout that would strike immunity from those platforms that use algorithms promoting content and permit the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), “in consultation with the heads of other relevant Federal agencies and outside experts determined appropriate by the Secretary, shall issue guidance regarding what constitutes health misinformation…”

Klobuchar’s evasive “answer” is not surprising considering the actual language of the bill has zero mention of vaccines and fails to define “misinformation.” But this lack of specific language and purpose in the bill — despite what Klobuchar may say at a conference — is very troubling. It leaves the door open for politicians and unelected bureaucrats in public health to determine what can and cannot be promoted on sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, harnessing the power of the federal government to punish platforms disseminating speech it deems “misinformation.”

In her failure to address Duffy’s specific question of whether stating two sexes could be deemed misinformation and therefore banned speech, Klobuchar leaves an open door for those in power to define what constitutes “health misinformation.” On March 31, President Biden’s administration released a document from HHS detailing appropriate treatments for transgender minors and endorsing adolescent sex-change operations. The official document includes the following: “Gender diverse adolescents, in particular, face significant health disparities compared to their cisgender peers. Transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents are at increased risk for mental health issues, substance use, and suicide.”

It isn’t hard to imagine HHS declaring a health crisis around gender-affirming care for kids and adolescents, and consequently banning speech declaring two-sex exclusivity on internet platforms and social media, when HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Child Traumatic Stress Network also issued a document stating, “Trauma exposure for TGI [transgender, gender diverse, and intersex] youth also includes the trauma of experiencing oppression when their identities are rejected by individuals in their lives, in their communities, or in the broader public … Gender-affirming medical care, particularly puberty blockers and gender-affirming hormones, reduces rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and other serious behavioral health outcomes.”

When asked to be specific about censoring gender identity language, her office emailed the following response, “Thank you for taking the time to contact me. I appreciate hearing from you on this important matter, and I will keep your views in mind as relevant legislation and other decisions related to this issue come before the Senate.”

Klobuchar is dipping her toes into the free speech battle. Her lack of clarity and unwillingness to address serious questions about her bill threatens to drown everyone who violates the government’s elusive definition of misinformation.