The mass shooter of the Buffalo supermarket, who targeted African Americans, published a manifesto stating that he was encouraged after being in racist forums on 4chan. Yet Republicans in Texas insisted on the passing of the HB 20 law, which removes censorship from discourses on social media.
HB 20 was pushed last December and blocked temporarily by a preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman. The NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) made a court filing to try and prevent this law from passing, but last Wednesday a split Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel lifted the injunction and reinstated the law.
Under Texas law, with the passing of HB 20, social media platforms can’t do much to regulate or censor racist or misinformative content. Since it stipulates lines of thinking as a “viewpoint”, if someone online believes the Holocaust wasn’t real, or that black people and immigrants are replacing white “native” voters (known as the replacement theory), it is merely a “viewpoint” and cannot be censored or removed.
The only exceptions within HB 20 stipulate the removal of content that could be potentially harmful to children, preventing sexual exploitation of minors, and harassment of sexual abuse survivors. It also states that direct threats of violence against anyone because of their race, religion, nationality or disability are not permitted.
“When these companies are following through on commitments to protect users from hateful speech, foreign extremism, government misinformation efforts or people encouraging your kids to eat detergent pods, to suggest that that is censorship defies reason,” stated Matt Schruers, CCIA president, in an interview with a reporter from San Antonio Express News.
Social media is a complicated ecosystem where the ground rules are still being debated, and the roles of the government and private companies who own these platforms are still being defined. Should the government, or a corporate billionaire, have the power to decide what is tweeted and what is not? Even so, how can hate speech, misinformation, and the spread of racist narratives be properly stopped?
Though one answer is clear: allowing these types of rhetorics to dwindle on platforms like Twitter, or discourses in 4chan, can have catastrophic consequences, like the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York. These types of content feed off people who are more likely to be racist or discriminative, and encourage them to continue with their beliefs with a dose of false narratives and fake information (often mixed with true or partially true facts, which makes it harder for it to dissect).
Some type of moderation is still very much needed, and laws like HB 20 only allow these users to continue to post harmful content. Republican legislators placed the law for platforms with more than 50 million monthly users. Many see this as a response to the suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts in January shortly after the Capitol riots.