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West Virginia Bill Looks to Censor Social Media

Can the government regulate information shared by social media companies during an election? According to one West Virginia lawmaker, the answer is "yes." The ACLU, however, says not so fast.

A new West Virginia bill proposes regulations against censorship of information by social media companies during an election, with some “criminal and civil penalties" depending on the nature of the violation.

Known as House Bill 3307, the legislation looks to create two things: 1) the Social Media Integrity and Anti-Corruption in Elections Act and 2) the Stop Social Media Censorship Act.

The first act would require social media companies to make election-related content on their platforms transparent and provide political parties and candidates with equal opportunities to share information online without being affected by policy- or partisan-based censorship.

The second act would implement criminal and civil penalties for companies that delete or censor a user's religious or political speech.

“A lot of this work started in coordination with Secretary of State Mac Warner as a result of the 2020 election,” Delegate Daniel Linville, the primary sponsor of the bill, said. “There was particular concern about Facebook putting out incorrect information about registering to vote and primary dates.”

According to Linville, Facebook’s election center promoted inaccurate details, prompting Secretary Warner to exchange several emails with the company to rectify the issue.

This incident, he said, led to a larger conversation about who receives information posted by Facebook and whether or not the company targets users based on specific demographics such as age, geographic area, political party affiliation or gender.

The incident also raised questions about how social media companies play a role in censoring information shared online by political candidates during an election.

“The purpose of this bill is to ensure that users aren’t treated differently because of targeting by social media companies or censored because of their political or religious beliefs,” Linville said.

To enforce its stipulations, the bill would require companies to share information such as election dates or voting sign-up instructions with the secretary of state’s office before it is published to ensure the information is correct.

But is it too invasive for government to have a say in what social media companies publish? ACLU-WV Policy Director Eli Baumwell believes the answer is in the affirmative.

“One of the concerns about this legislation is that the secretary of state would be deciding what’s true and what’s not true,” Baumwell said. “You don’t want to put the government in charge of deciding those things.”

The legislation might also disincentivize companies from addressing issues such as the spread of disinformation or calls to violence.

“Bills like this are largely in response to President Trump being banned from social media sites along with other politicians that engage in a similar rhetoric,” Baumwell said. “I don’t think the answer is censorship. There are other options such as flagging information or providing fact checks.”

As for enforcing criminal penalties to regulate social media companies, Baumwell said "this more than likely won't happen."

Until another reasonable option is found, he said, “there’s a lot more innovation that needs to be done.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
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