Social Media and Politics: A balancing of rights

What role should social media play in shaping our political landscape? 

A US federal appeals court last Friday reversed a lower court’s order blocking a Texas law that stops large social media platforms from removing political posts. This is viewed as a blow for tech companies that claim their content moderation decisions are protected by the US Constitution.

Judge Andrew S. Oldham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is known as conservative, said in the court’s ruling, “Today we reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say,”. One member of the three-judge panel dissented from portions of the ruling.

The current Texas law makes it possible for individuals or the Texas attorney general’s office to sue social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the United States for taking down political viewpoints. The legislation is the product of conservative discontent over posts that were taken down because they had violated the social media platforms’ rules.

This decision comes as platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter face immense political pressure over their decisions to take down content they deem misinformation, or view as hateful or violent. US Republicans have generally called for the platforms to leave up a wider range of posts, while Democrats have urged them to be more aggressive in removing some content.

Closer to home, in Ireland social media firms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will soon be legally required to take down misleading information at election time under proposed legislation.

The Electoral Reform Bill 2022 envisages the Electoral Commission having the power to investigate online claims that amount to disinformation at election times. The Commission would be able to order social-media outlets to take down offending posts, correct them or label them as potential misinformation. It would also be able to order any host of any online platform to publish a statement informing all readers of manipulative or inauthentic behaviour or the use of an undisclosed bot.

Furthermore, new hate crime legislation will newly criminalise certain forms of online hate speech. Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee said that she is "amending her approach" to the forthcoming Incitement to Hatred and Hate Crime Bill to make it easier to secure prosecutions and convictions for crimes motivated by hate. The new law will replace the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989.

The incoming bill will legislate for hate crimes by creating new and aggravated forms of certain existing criminal offences if the offence is motivated by prejudice against one of eight protected characteristics, newly including gender identity. The legislation is intended to provide “teeth” to combat hate crime and make it easier to secure convictions.

Last week, US President Joe Biden announced a toughening of his approach to online hate speech, speaking at the 'United We Stand' summit of bipartisan local leaders, experts and survivors of hate-fuelled violence. President Biden said the US had long experienced a "through line of hate" against minority groups, one that had been given "too much oxygen" by politics and the media in recent years.



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