Texas State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R- District 18) recently introduced Senate Bill 1158, relating to social media companies that unjustifiably censor political speech. Two weeks ago, this bill passed through the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee. As Heartland state government relations manager, I provided testimony on the issue before the Committee, and urge state legislators to consider the importance of protecting Texans’ inalienable free speech rights.
This legislation would ensure that any social media company that unduly censors free speech be held accountable for such actions. According to the bill, the Texas attorney general would maintain a list of social media companies that censor political speech. Any state governmental entity that owns direct or indirect holdings in any of the companies on the attorney general’s list must send written notice informing the company of its status on the list, warn the company that it may become subject to divestment, and offer the company an opportunity to clarify its activities related to censorship.
This bill is necessary because social media plays a pivotal role in modern free societies. In contemporary America, social media has become the new public square. However, in recent months, we have seen a disturbing trend in which social media companies silence certain people based on their political ideology. This is un-American. And unconstitutional.
According to Statista, the number of social network users worldwide reached 3.6 billion in 2020, a number that is projected to increase to 4.4 billion by 2025. According to Datareportal.com, the average time a person spends on social media per day is two hours and 24 minutes. At that rate, an average 16-year-old who signs up for social media will spend 5.7 years of his or her life on social media platforms by his or her 70th birthday.
In the United States, social media platforms are especially prominent. More than 231 million Americans currently use social media services—about 70 percent of the U.S. population. Moreover, the popularity of these platforms has grown over the past year, thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic. A Harris Poll conducted in spring 2020 found that 46 to 51 percent of U.S. adults say they are using social media at higher rates than they were prior to the start of the pandemic.
Additionally, U.S. social network ad spending is projected to rise by 21.3 percent in 2021. In 2020, total spending topped $40 billion, according to eMarketer.
As these statistics show, social networks have become much more than a host for memes and birthday celebrations among friends and family. In today’s world, social media platforms have become the dominant means of digital communication.
Despite their benefits, social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter pose an imminent threat to freedom. The vast majority of social media platforms and big tech companies are controlled by a small handful of powerful tech titans, who have been given liability protections by government and allowed to operate for years as near-monopolies. These companies now control the most powerful communication platforms in human history. Unfortunately, some of these companies have chosen to use their outsized influence to divide, misinform, censor, and manipulate the public. Examples abound of citizens being silenced, deplatformed, and ostracized because they posted content that the big tech overlords deem “inappropriate.”
In America, big tech titans can suppress free speech at will. They can even silence a sitting U.S. president. That is chilling. No one company or cabal of companies should have the power to drive the societal discourse to the alarming degree that big tech currently does.
Within this context, many Americans reasonably worry they could be banned by social media platforms for expressing their political, religious, or even cultural opinions. Rather than provide clear, consistent rules for participating on social media, big tech has chosen to arbitrarily clamp down on those they deem guilty of spreading “misinformation” or “disinformation”—subjective standards imposed by biased social media platforms or their ideological allies.
One policy solution to this ominous threat to free speech is Texas Senate Bill 1158. In simple terms, SB 1158 would provide Texas lawmakers with the tools necessary to ensure that big tech platforms do not unduly threaten Texans’ free speech. SB 1158 would allow Texas governmental entities to send a clear message to big tech: Censorship of free speech will not be tolerated in the Lone Star State.
Under current federal law, social media companies are insulated from liability and basically allowed to censor free speech due to the notorious Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. SB 1158 would address issues related to social media censorship by allowing citizens to pursue a private cause of action in court if they can prove they have been de-platformed for expressing nonviolent opinions.
Senate Bill 1158 would ensure all Texans’ free speech rights remain protected. Regardless of whether or not it becomes law, it should spur a long overdue national debate on big tech censorship. Several other states are also considering legislation that would enact similar protections as those outlined in SB 1158, such as Missouri (House Bill 482) and Oklahoma (Senate Bill 383). The Heartland Institute is also working on 59 pieces of similar legislation in other states throughout the nation.
Lawmakers in Texas, as well as every other state, should carefully consider these and other solutions that would protect Americans from undue censorship by big tech. More speech, not less speech, is always better in a truly free society.
The following documents provide more information about big tech censorship and ways to enhance free speech rights on the internet.
In this publication by Heartland President James Taylor, the author outlines six principles for state legislators seeking to protect free speech and limit social media censorship.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.
The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state, or send you further information on a topic. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Heartland’s Government Relations team at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.