In the wake of the devastating murder of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ-4) took to Twitter—not to offer comfort to grieving families, but to peddle misinformation falsely accusing a transgender woman in Georgia of the crime.
At a time when Arizona and other states are already struggling to combat dangerous election misinformation online, Rep. Gosar’s tweet highlights the continued need for policymakers, and Democrats in particular, to protect online platforms’ ability to moderate content.
Right now, online platforms have legal protections that enable them to remove “lawful but awful” speech posted to their sites. This means Meta can shut down white nationalists promoting hate in Facebook groups, or Twitter can add a warning label to tweets like Rep. Gosar’s that are anti-trans, racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful. While the speech itself is legal, online platforms can remove it for the health and safety of their communities.
Yet Democrats like Sen. Amy Klobuchar are promoting the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) without recognizing its harmful effects on platforms’ ability to remove misinformation. While Rep. Gosar ended up deleting his hateful tweet himself, there is no such guarantee that others spreading misinformation online will self-moderate. Often, it comes down to the platforms hosting the content to shoulder the responsibility of removing harmful and hateful speech from their sites.
While the intent of AICOA is to increase competition in the tech sector, legal experts agree that Sen. Klobuchar’s bill and legislation like it endanger the ability of online platforms to moderate content. For example, AICOA aims to make it illegal for platforms to discriminate in the way they apply their terms of service to similarly situated business users. In practice, this means that a platform like Amazon might be prevented from stopping the sale of a fake documentary with Covid misinformation, or that Apple’s App Store could be disallowed from taking down an extremist app like Parler for spreading violent conspiracy theories.
In effect, AICOA would force online platforms to let false information and hate run rampant on their sites or remove it and risk lawsuits with damages that could end up costing them up to 15% of their U.S. revenue—a risk most companies won’t be willing to take.
The stakes aren’t just high for these platforms, but for our country’s institutions and citizens, too. The hateful misinformation coming out of Uvalde is only a taste of the lies that might go viral if platforms are stripped of their right to moderate content.
Reducing platforms’ ability to moderate misinformation online will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our society. We often see the worst abuse and misinformation directed at under-represented groups like the LGBTQ+ community. Tying online platforms’ hands by limiting their ability to take down hateful content will only make them more vulnerable.
Arizona’s leaders need to go beyond condemning Rep. Gosar for spreading misinformation and take steps to protect online platforms’ ability to moderate harmful content and keep society’s most vulnerable safe online. The truth, and the safety of online communities, is at stake. While lawmakers may not agree with every content moderation call made by social media referees, we can all agree that the online world would be a more harmful place if all the refs were pulled from the field.
Adam Kovacevich is the founder of a center-left tech industry coalition called Chamber of Progress and has worked at the intersection of tech and politics for 20 years.