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Texas' anti-moderation social network law blocked by judge

Enforcing rules on content is in everybody's interest, court decides

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked Texas legislation banning large social media companies from moderating content, one day before the law was due to come into effect.

Under the law, HB20, social media platforms with over 50 million monthly active users in the US are prohibited from removing content posted by users, especially if they’re posting within Texas, unless it's unlawful. The bill was signed into law by the state’s Governor Greg Abbott on 9 September, earlier this year.

The law was challenged, however, when two IT trade groups filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the law from being enforced. Netchoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) argued HB20 violated First Amendment rights by forcing companies to host content they didn’t agree with.

Although the statute was designed to protect opinions or “viewpoints”, it would allow fake news and misinformation to spread. Companies like Twitter or Facebook, for example, would not only have to keep, say, pro-Trump or pro-Biden content up, it’d also have to allow posts denying the Holocaust ever took place too. CCIA’s President Matt Schruers argued social media platforms would devolve into a cesspit of “disinformation, propaganda, and extremism.”

Robert Pitman, a federal judge from Texas’ Western District Court assigned to the case, agreed and granted the plaintiffs an injunction. “Courts have found that ‘injunctions protecting First Amendment freedoms are always in the public interest,’” according to court documents [PDF].

“In this case, content moderation and curation will benefit users and the public by reducing harmful content and providing a safe, useful service. Here, an ‘injunction will serve, not be adverse to, the public interest.’” Companies could suffer “irreparable harm”; people might stop using social media due to all the toxic garbage and they might lose advertising money, according to the ruling.

When Abbott signed HB20 into law on September 9th, earlier this year, he said in a statement: "Social media websites have become our modern-day public square. They are a place for healthy public debate where information should be able to flow freely — but there is a dangerous movement by social media companies to silence conservative viewpoints and ideas. That is wrong, and we will not allow it in Texas.”

Recent research from Twitter, however, shows that right-wing content tends to be amplified by its algorithms more than left-wing posts. Tweets posted by conservative politicians were more likely to be spread and viewed by users more than those from liberal parties.

News articles from right-wing media outlets such as Fox News were also more likely to be boosted than left-wing publications like Buzzfeed. It’s probably because these posts cause more outrage, according to research from the New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics. ®

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