This law leaves social media companies with three choices, all of which are unacceptable: they can remove toxic content such as misinformation and hate speech and be embroiled in bottomless and costly lawsuits. They can let their platforms turn into cesspools of hate and misinformation and watch people stop using them altogether. Or they may simply stop offering their services in Texas, which also exposes them to potential liability since the law prohibits social media platforms from discriminating against Texans based on their location.
This law poses an existential threat to social media as we know it. (Facebook and Twitter chose not to comment on a CNN analysis of the decision, while YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.) And while there are plenty of issues with social media platforms in this moment, the only thing worse than not fixing them would be watching one of the above three scenarios play out. This is why federal lawmakers should intervene immediately to prevent this from happening. They can start by protecting the rights of social networking sites to moderate their content, so they can be healthy places for users to find accurate information and make the kinds of connections that allow us.
The biggest challenge facing social media companies today is doing exactly what HB 20 appears to prohibit: removing misinformation and hate speech.
Game developer Zoe Quinn has certainly seen the dark side of social media. In their 2017 book, “Crash Override,” Quinn wrote that beginning in 2014, internet trolls inundated them with threats of rape and violence and sent nude photos of Quinn to friends and family. This was all part of a coordinated attack on female game developers known as Gamergate. Quinn, who has since come out as non-cisgender, had to live in hiding and had to take medication for PTSD.
But even Quinn, who has seen the worst social networks, seems to recognize their value to society and users. Quinn wrote: “Everything I have, everything good in my life, I owe to the internet’s ability to empower people like me, people who wouldn’t have a voice without him.” That’s because when Quinn said they were depressed, they met people in chat rooms that made them stop wanting to kill themselves. Craigslist helped Quinn and their then-husband find jobs when they were homeless. Quinn also said they were potentially avoiding a drug overdose thanks to information they found in online communities and wrote that these communities were their “only effective way to date other girls”. Quinn has also established a career as an online game developer.
These are the things people would lose if social media fails because of laws like this: opportunities to find communities of support and, in some cases, earn a living. Quinn was able to find hope and help through social platforms, and others can too. So instead of letting social networks fail, we should try to improve them by making them healthy content platforms that empower and educate people and help users connect and improve our lives.
HB 20 provides exemptions, including those that allow social networks to remove content that “directly incites criminal activity or consists of specific threats of targeted violence against a person or group” based on certain characteristics, or that “is an illegal expression”. Hopefully that would mean social media would also not be penalized for removing content depicting violence, like the Buffalo mass shooting video, even though that could be open to interpretation. An expert told CNN Business that the law is ambiguous enough to create huge uncertainty for social media companies. Platforms could still face legal pressure to leave violent content, like the Buffalo filming video, in place.
Surprisingly, the law makes it harder for social networks to take action against toxic content like misinformation. This could mean that people could vote or make decisions about their health, for example, based on totally inaccurate statements they read online.
That’s why Congress needs to step in — quickly — to pass legislation affirming the right of social media companies to moderate content on their platforms, which would render Texas law powerless.
Meanwhile, two lobby groups representing the tech industry have asked the Supreme Court to block Texas’ HB 20 law. Of course, that would be ideal. In the meantime, the Court is considering whether to grant an emergency stay of the decision.
We need to fix social media by removing toxic content. This month’s appeals court ruling does the exact opposite and could even deal a fatal blow to social media as we know it. The only thing worse than not fixing the social platforms we currently have would be to see them face a constant series of lawsuits or turn into platforms that become bastions of hate speech and misinformation. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t let us down.