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After Capitol assault, Florida lawmakers target social media bans

Proposed legislation would require social media websites to give 30-day notice to a user whose account has been disabled or suspended and explain why the user was punished.
Logos for social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.
Logos for social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. [ AP ]
Published Jan. 12, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — After the nation’s most powerful social media platforms banned President Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts following the mob violence on the nation’s Capitol last week, two Florida legislators are drafting legislation that will retaliate against the companies for engaging in what they call “selective censorship” of conservative opinions.

State Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, and Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, each said they were motivated by the response to the social media platforms and by Google, Apple and Amazon, which blocked Twitter alternative Parler.

The companies said they severed the president from the accounts because he has used them to disseminate conspiracy theories and false claims about the election and that enabling his continued ability to use them would risk “further incitement of violence.”

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-San Antonio.
Sen. Danny Burgess, R-San Antonio.

On Monday, Facebook said it also was removing all content mentioning “stop the steal,” a phrase used by Trump supporters to organize around the unproven claims of election fraud.

“For them, ‘stop the steal’ is apparently code for violence. That’s wrong,” said Fine, who is drafting legislation to prohibit the state from doing business with any of the social media companies. “I would say the same thing if this was happening to liberals. A selective viewpoint of discrimination is dangerous.”

He called the mob that attacked the Capitol “terrorists” who “defiled a sacred temple of democracy” and said “there is no penalty too severe for them.’' But, Fine added, he was “deeply disturbed to see the country’s major technology companies use the actions of these few as a pretext to silence tens of millions of good, patriotic Americans.”

In a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet on Tuesday, Fine urged them to divest the state’s billion-dollar pension fund of any stock it holds in Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet (Google).

“It is clear that Twitter and Facebook are engaged in one-sided viewpoint discrimination targeting conservatives,’' he wrote.

He argues that a few dozen bad actors planned the insurrection long before the president’s remarks, and the president cannot be blamed for their actions.

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“Those people did not hear Donald Trump speak and go, ‘Wow, I’m going to go get some zip ties and I’m gonna go put on my tactical gear, and I’m going to go and make some bombs,’ ’' Fine said. “Those people were planning to do it with well before he spoke. So the argument that his words incited much of that behavior is intellectually bankrupt.”

Bill would require notice, explanations

Burgess’ bill, SB 520, would require social media websites to give 30-day notice to a user whose account has been disabled or suspended and explain why the user was punished. He next wants to amend the bill to prohibit social media censorship.

Burgess, a freshman state senator, said he came up with the idea “from a couple months of conversation from constituents who have been censored or blocked, or completely banned from primarily Facebook.” He said they tried to get answers from the company and when they responded they were told the constituent violated “their dangerous persons and dangerous organizations policies.”

But when Twitter announced on Friday it was permanently blocking Trump’s account, Burgess decided he wanted to go further. He now wants the legislative committee process to help him craft a ban on social media censorship.

“As publishers of third-party content, they should not be allowed to discriminate based on content and ban individuals just because they do not agree with their viewpoint,’' he said. “These tech giants are monopolies that I think are very clearly coordinating efforts in a lot of ways on certain fronts. and doing some selective censorship.”

Fine acknowledges that the First Amendment allows private companies to create their own rules for content on their sites, which includes barring users who violate them, but he and Burgess say that social media companies are held to a different standard than publishing companies.

The First Amendment protects free speech, including hate speech, but social media companies are also given immunity under a 1996 federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which other publishers are not given. The act shields websites from liability for content created by their users including hate speech.

“No matter what one thinks about President Trump, he remains the duly-elected President of the United States until noon on January 20th,’' Fine wrote in his letter. “If the President of the United States can be silenced by these companies, then so can anyone.”

ACLU is wary of censorship

The subject of regulating the nation’s social media giants is not a new one and has been raised by organizations on the political left for years. In a statement after Twitter banned Trump from it’s platform, ACLU legislative counsel Kate Ruane warned that the nation’s leaders should have seen this coming.

“For months, President Trump has been using social media platforms to seed doubt about the results of the election and to undermine the will of voters,’' she wrote in a statement on Saturday. “We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier.”

Ruane noted that while the president “can turn to his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public,” others " like many Black, Brown, and LGTBQ activists who have been censored by social media companies – will not have that luxury. It is our hope that these companies will apply their rules transparently to everyone.”

Fine said that although the issue has crystallized because of Trump’s ban, he has evidence that Facebook has been blocking others for some time.

A Facebook group his wife was on, called “Walk Away,’' that collected stories of people who left the Democratic Party was shut down, he said. “There was nothing on it about the election, nothing about violence but they closed it, terminated it, just shut it down.” A “Walk Away” Facebook group was still active on Facebook, however, on Tuesday.

Burgess said he hopes his bill will start a needed debate about the role of the platforms in free speech and ask whether they have assumed the role of government actors and whether they should be regulated like a monopoly or broken apart.

“For better for worse, it’s here, it’s necessary, and it’s it’s one of the primary if not the primary forms of communication in the modern world,’' Burgess said. “To me it’s not a partisan issue. Certainly, the selective censorship does seem to lean one direction, and I think we should all at least be able to acknowledge that” but “it’s a debate that needs to be had.”


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