To combat disinformation, California lawmakers are introducing a bill that would require social media companies to disclose their process for removing false, hateful or extremist material from their platforms. Texas lawmakers, by contrast, want to bar the largest companies — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — from removing posts because of political views.
In Washington, the state attorney general persuaded a court to fine a nonprofit organization and its attorney $28,000 for filing a baseless legal challenge to the 2020 gubernatorial race. In Alabama, lawmakers want to allow that people seek financial damages from social media platforms that close their accounts for posting false content.
In the absence of meaningful action on disinformation at the federal level, officials in state after state are targeting the sources of disinformation and the platforms that spread it, only from starkly divergent ideological positions. In this deeply polarized era, even the fight for truth breaks down along partisan lines.
The result has been a cacophony of state bills and legal maneuvering that could reinforce information bubbles in a nation increasingly divided on a variety of issues, including abortion, guns, the environment, and along lines. geographical.
The November midterm elections are driving much of the activity at the state level. In Republican states, the focus has been on protecting conservative voices on social media, including those spreading unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.
In blue states, lawmakers have tried to force the same companies to do more to stop the spread of conspiracy theories and other damaging information on a wide range of topics, including voting rights and Covid-19.
“We shouldn’t sit idly by and just throw up our hands and say this is an impossible beast that’s going to take over our democracy,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said in an interview.
Calling disinformation a “nuclear weapon” that threatens the country’s democratic foundations, he supports legislation that would make it a crime to spread lies about elections. He praised the $28,000 fine levied against the advocacy group that questioned the integrity of the state’s vote in 2020.
“We should creatively look at potential ways to reduce its impact,” he said, referring to disinformation.
The biggest obstacle to new regulations, regardless of which party pushes them, is the First Amendment. Lobbyists for social media companies say that while they seek to moderate content, the government shouldn’t be in the business of dictating how that is done.
Free speech concerns defeated a deeply-needed bill in Washington that would have made it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, for candidates or elected officials to “spread lies about free and fair elections when there is the possibility of fuel the violence. .”
Governor Inslee, who faced unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud after winning a third term in 2020, supported the legislation, citing the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio. That ruling allowed states to punish speech that calls for violence or criminal acts when “such defense is directed to inciting or producing imminent unlawful action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
The legislation stalled in the state Senate in February, but Inslee said the magnitude of the problem required urgent action.
The scope of the problem of disinformation and the power of technology companies has begun to undermine the notion that freedom of expression is politically untouchable.
The new law in Texas has already reached the Supreme Court, which blocked the law from taking effect in May, though it sent the case back to a federal appeals court for further consideration. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed the legislation last year, prompted in part by decisions by Facebook and Twitter to shut down former President Donald J. Trump’s accounts after the Jan. 6, 2021, violence on Capitol Hill.
The court’s ruling noted that it could review a central issue: whether social media platforms, like newspapers, retain a high degree of editorial freedom.
“It is not entirely obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the Internet age, should apply to large social media companies,” Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in his dissent to the court’s emergency ruling. that suspended the application of the law.
A federal judge last month blocked a similar law in Florida that would have fined social media companies up to $250,000 a day if they blocked political candidates from their platforms, which have become essential tools of modern campaigns. Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures have proposed similar measures, including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Alaska.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has created an online portal through which residents can complain that their access to social media has been restricted: alabamaag.gov/Censored. In a written response to questions, he said social media platforms have stepped up efforts to restrict content during the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.
“During this period (and continues to this day), social media platforms abandoned any pretense of promoting freedom of expression, a principle on which they sold users, and openly and arrogantly proclaimed themselves the Ministry of Truth,” he wrote. “Suddenly, any point of view that deviated even the slightest from the prevailing orthodoxy was censored.”
Much of the current state-level activity has been fueled by the fraudulent claim that Trump, and not President Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Though repeatedly refuted, Republicans have cited the claim to introduce dozens of bills. that would clamp down on absentee or mail-in voting in the states they control.
Democrats have moved in the opposite direction. Sixteen states have expanded people’s ability to vote, fueling preemptive accusations among lawmakers and conservative commentators that Democrats are bent on cheating.
“There is a direct line between conspiracy theories, lawsuits and legislation in the states,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan election advocacy organization in the United States. New York University School of Law. “Now, more than ever, your voting rights depend on where you live. What we have seen this year is that half the country is going in one direction and the other half is going in the other direction.”
TechNet, the lobbying group for Internet companies, has fought local proposals in dozens of states. Industry executives argue that variations in state law create a confusing patchwork of rules for businesses and consumers. Instead, companies have highlighted their own application of disinformation and other harmful content.
“These decisions are made as consistently as possible,” said David Edmonson, the group’s vice president of state policy and government relations.
For many politicians, the issue has become a powerful stick against opponents, as each side accuses the other of spreading lies and both groups criticize social media giants.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has raised campaign funds on his promise to press ahead with his fight against what he has called “authoritarian corporations” that have tried to silence conservative voices.
In Ohio, JD Vance, a memoirist and Republican Senate candidate, slammed social media giants, saying they were stifling news of the foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
In Missouri, Vicky Hartzler, a former congresswoman running for the Republican nomination for Senate, posted a television ad criticizing Twitter for suspending her personal account after she posted comments about transgender athletes. “They want to write you off,” she said in the ad, defending her comments as “what God intended.”
OnMessage, a polling firm that counts the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a client, reported that 80 percent of primary voters surveyed in 2021 said they believed tech companies were too powerful and should be held accountable. Six years earlier, only 20 percent said so.
“Voters have a palpable fear of canceling culture and how technology is censoring political views.” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the Republican National Senatorial Committee.
In blue states, Democrats have focused more directly on the harm that misinformation inflicts on society, including through false claims about the election or Covid and through racist or anti-Semitic material that has motivated violent attacks like the massacre in a supermarket in Buffalo in May.
Connecticut plans to spend nearly $2 million on marketing to share factual information about voting and create a position for an expert to take down voting misinformation narratives before they go viral. A similar effort to create a disinformation board at the Department of Homeland Security sparked political fury before its work was suspended in May pending an internal review.
In California, the state Senate is moving forward with legislation that would require social media companies to disclose their policies regarding hate speech, misinformation, extremism, harassment and foreign political interference. (The law would not force them to restrict content.) Another bill would allow civil lawsuits against big social media platforms like TikTok and Meta’s Facebook and Instagram if their products are proven to have addicted children.
“All of these different challenges that we’re facing have a common thread, and the common thread is the power of social media to amplify really problematic content,” said Democratic Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of California, who sponsored the legislation to demand greater transparency of social media platforms. “That has significant consequences both online and in physical spaces.”
The flurry of legislative activity seems unlikely to have a significant impact before this fall’s election; social media companies will not have a single, mutually acceptable response when accusations of disinformation inevitably arise.
“Any election cycle brings intense new content challenges for platforms, but the November midterms look particularly explosive,” said Matt Perault, director of the Center for Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina. “With abortion, guns and democratic participation at the forefront of voters’ minds, platforms will face intense challenges in moderating discourse. Neither party is likely to be satisfied with the decisions the platforms make.”