Social media deplatforming a top issue for GOP lawmakers

Republican state lawmakers are seeking to block social media companies from deplatforming or otherwise censoring politicians and others.
FILE — Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis takes to the stage to debate his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Oct. 24, 2022. (Crystal Vander Weit/TCPalm.com via AP, Pool, File)

Republican state lawmakers are seeking to block social media companies from deplatforming or otherwise censoring politicians and others.

Since 2021, more than 125 content moderation bills have been introduced in at least 33 states plus Washington, D.C., according to tracking by the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group. The vast majority of those were GOP-backed measures focused on penalizing social media platforms that take down content or kick users off their sites.

The legislative efforts are expected to continue in at least a handful of states next year when lawmakers reconvene.

“It’s gotten out of control where there’s just one viewpoint and if you have a narrative that counters the prevailing elitist viewpoint, then you get shut down,” said South Carolina state Rep. Mike Burns (R), who sponsored a “Stop Social Media Censorship Act” bill earlier this year and plans to refile it in January.

The bill would allow individuals to sue social media companies that delete or censor their religious or political speech, or that use an algorithm to “shadowban” their posts. The restrictions on platforms would not apply to posts that call for an immediate act of violence or the bullying of minors.

Florida and Texas have already passed similar laws, though they are on hold pending a legal challenge. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said last year as he signed the bill that “Big Tech censors” will be held accountable if they “enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology.”

The issue has galvanized many Republicans who feel social media companies have unfairly targeted conservative voices. It became super-charged when Twitter and Facebook deplatformed former President Donald Trump after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Democratic state lawmakers, meanwhile, have focused on regulating social media companies for allowing hate and violent content to be disseminated.

“While we see both Republicans and Democrats concerned about content moderation … what those concerns look like and how they play out in policy differ on the two sides of the aisle,” said Jennifer Huddleston, policy counsel at NetChoice, another industry group.

NetChoice along with CCIA are leading the lawsuits to overturn the Florida and Texas laws, which have now reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The trade groups — representing major tech and social media companies — argue the laws are unconstitutional and violate federal law.

“Any time the government is telling a private actor they must publish speech, particularly speech that they disagree with, we have a serious problem,” said CCIA president Matt Schruers. “That is not consistent with the free expression ideas that this country was based on.”

If the Supreme Court takes up the issue and ultimately rules in favor of the industry, that would likely squelch efforts in other states to pass similar laws. While some state lawmakers may be waiting to see what happens in the courts, others are vowing to press ahead.

“We got to have the bills trying to move through the process to help expedite this,” said Burns, who said he’s especially concerned about social media restrictions on posts related to concerns about the safety COVID-19 vaccines.

While conservatives often compare social media sites to the public square, industry representatives point out the sites are controlled by private companies.

Chris MacKenzie of Chamber of Progress, a left-of-center industry group, said the laws are no different than if a state told a brick-and-mortar store they couldn’t kick someone out for shouting racial slurs.

“It’s within their First Amendment right to determine how they moderate content on their site,” MacKenzie said.

It’s not only state-level Republicans who are pursuing laws targeting what they view as social media censorship. In August, U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), James Comer (R-Ky.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) introduced legislation aimed at prohibiting federal officials from using their authority or influence to get social media companies to remove or restrict certain content.

“To protect freedom of speech, our bill stops the Swamp from pressuring social media companies to silence ordinary Americans,” Comer said in a statement announcing the legislation.

NetChoice has endorsed the federal legislation.