Seamy side of social media gets a boost from federal court ruling

The judges’ ruling not only plunges social media platforms into uncertainty but also threatens to supercharge spam, harassment, hateful speech, bots, personal attacks and outright lies.

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In this illustration file photo taken on April 26, 2022 a phone screen displays the Twitter logo on a Twitter page background, in Washington, D.C.

In this illustration file photo, a phone screen displays the Twitter logo on a Twitter page background.

Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

At a time when the nation has been hoping to see social media become a more responsible and safer corporate citizen, it suddenly feels we are going in the wrong direction.

A 15-word ruling last Wednesday by two conservative federal appellate judges has cleared the way for Texas residents to sue Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for blocking or restricting what they post on those platforms. The ruling disagrees with other federal judges’ findings that online platforms have a First Amendment right to decide what appears on their sites. The case conceivably could lead the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court to reinterpret First Amendment rights.

After those platforms became awash in threatening, hateful and outright false posts that shaped the national discourse — on politics, the pandemic, race and more — to a surprising and unwelcome degree in recent years, the companies struggled to allow as much free expression as possible while warding off the worst abuses.

That didn’t sit well with some politicians, who believe the policies put conservatives at a disadvantage, though they have produced no evidence supporting that claim.

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The Texas law, enacted after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter and which could be copied in other states, could be a tool to bring back the more unfettered and unpleasant online accusations and other posts the social media platforms sought to weed out.

Even if other states don’t follow suit, the difficulty of separating out who is using a social media site in Texas might lead the tech companies to abandon their oversight efforts everywhere.

Ideally, Congress would have agreed long ago on sensible policies that ushered social media platforms into a beneficial future, but there is little sign that will happen, not least because it is an extremely knotty problem.

The judges’ ruling not only plunges the world of social media platforms into uncertainty but also threatens to supercharge spam, harassment, hateful speech, spam bots, personal attacks and outright lies into an enormous online cesspool. The near-monopoly control of online conversation by big tech companies already has worried many people. This could make things worse.

It’s hard to predict where this case will wind up. On Friday, two groups representing big tech companies filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court to block the Texas law. But any hopes of progress toward social media as better allies in the effort to achieve a more cohesive society suddenly feels farther out of reach.

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