The suspect in Saturday’s deadly shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, in which 10 people were murdered and three more were injured, briefly streamed the event live on Twitch. He appeared to be driven by anti-Black, white supremacist ideology. As expected, Twitch terminated the feed within two minutes. The site, along with many others, has already removed many posts that contained links to copies or rebroadcasts of the original video.
That’s a good thing; social media sites shouldn’t have to enable every user to upload any content at any time, but they should have the power to prevent the spread of violent or otherwise offensive material. Otherwise, picture a world where you can never access social media without being inundated with Hitler’s speeches, footage of animal abuse, or extreme pornographic content.
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If any of those postings were published from within the state of Texas, then the attempt to remove them would likely be in violation of HB20, a new law that restricts the circumstances under which major social media platforms can control the content of their users.
A federal court in Austin stopped that law, citing First Amendment concerns. Nonetheless, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is presently reviewing an appeal of that verdict, issued an unsigned, inexplicable order last week, making HB20 effective immediately. Plaintiffs who are challenging the Texas law have asked the Supreme Court for immediate relief. The footage of the shooting on Saturday is just one of many reasons why the Supreme Court should agree to hear the case as soon as possible.
In response to (arguable) charges that major social media companies habitually discriminated against and “censored” conservative political perspectives, the Texas legislature passed, and Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB20 into law last September. Proponents of the law point to the permanent suspension and removal of former President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook for his remarks before, during, and after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
That’s why the measure makes it illegal for businesses to “censor” a user because of the content of their posts, no matter how offensive it may be.
The bill makes an exception for material that explicitly calls for criminal activity, or that makes specific threats of violence against individuals or groups based on various characteristics; however, there is no such exemption for content relating to crimes that have already occurred, such as the Buffalo shooter’s livestream.
In the final days of November 2017, just before HB20 was supposed to take effect, Judge Robert Pitman in Austin issued an injunction prohibiting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from executing the law. Pitman, in a lengthy 30-page judgment, ruled that social media platforms have a First Amendment right to monitor content disseminated on their platforms and that HB20 was likely a breach of that right since it might compel platforms to broadcast undesirable content.
Pitman elaborated on the reasons why enforcing HB20 would be disastrous. That’s because, he said, “HB20 outlaws nearly all content moderation, the very mechanism that social media platforms deploy to keep their sites secure, helpful, and entertaining to users.”
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