Texas Republicans say Facebook routinely muzzles Christians and conservatives by banning them, shutting down their pages and preventing them from promoting posts. Those claims of bias are now headed to the state Senate as lawmakers debate a bill that threatens social media companies with lawsuits if they censor users based on their viewpoint.
“It appears that certain speech that Facebook doesn’t like gets treated differently than speech that they do like,” said Hughes, R-Mineola, whose Senate Bill 2373 was approved 7-0 by the Senate State Affairs committee on Monday. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, of Laredo, abstained.
Hughes said he filed the bill after Facebook did not let him pay to promote a post containing a Bible verse. He said he has also heard from a Baptist church in Allen that was not allowed to promote a Facebook post about Easter services. And members of the Texas Senate Republican Caucus were rebuffed by Facebook when they tried to promote an ad for anti-abortion legislation, he said.
Similar complaints prompted a Congressional hearing last week, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the platform’s content decisions.
“There are a great many Americans who I think are concerned Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship,” Cruz said.
Zuckerberg said he is dedicated to making sure Facebook is a “platform for all ideas.”
“This is actually a concern that I have, and that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about.”
At the same time, after Facebook flagged the page of two conservative bloggers — Diamond and Silk — as “unsafe to the community,” Zuckerberg admitted “our team made an enforcement error, and we have already gotten in touch with them to reverse it.”
Hughes’ bill would provide consumer protection penalties to social media companies if they market themselves as viewpoint neutral but restrict users’ speech based on its content. Under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, companies found in violation of the new law could be sued by the Texas Attorney General’s office.
“If you publicly say, ‘We are content neutral. We do not censor based on religious or political speech,’ we are going to hold you to that,” Hughes said.
Last year, in an effort to be more transparent, Facebook published its rules for moderating posts — which were once kept secret — and introduced an appeals process for users who believe their content was taken down unfairly. Andy Stone, policy communications manager for Facebook, said he was unable to comment on the posts Hughes mentioned.
CJ Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas, testified in support of SB 2373 on Monday. He said Facebook has repeatedly censored his organization even though it adheres to the platform’s terms of service.
“We’ve lost 16 Facebook groups that have been shut down arbitrarily by Facebook that have not violated any terms of service,” Grisham testified. “We don’t allow hate speech … we don’t say anything violent, we don’t encourage violence, yet myself and our organization is routinely targeted.”
Representatives of the technology industry testified against the bill, raising concerns that the legislation’s “vague” language could bring about unnecessary lawsuits and burden Texas courts with policing social media.
“Companies review millions of pieces of content every week, and while they don’t and can’t always get it right, they work to ensure there is no bias in content decisions and take equal steps to improve their processes,” testified Sarah Matz, director of state government affairs for The Computing Technology Industry Association in Texas. “We’re concerned this bill would create, unintentionally, an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits … and this doesn’t seem like the Texas thing to do.”