Broad consensus against state regulation of online speech, survey finds

by | Feb 2, 2024

A newly published survey finds widespread American opposition to increased government regulation of social media content, noting a preference for platform and user autonomy in content moderation decisions.

A survey commissioned by the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) Research Center indicates broad opposition among Americans to increased government control over social media content.

The survey, which involved 1,130 American adults, comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to review state laws that could impact how digital platforms moderate content.

Findings from the survey show that 92 percent of respondents believe state governments should have the least influence over social media content moderation, preferring instead that platforms and their users have the autonomy to decide what content is appropriate.

Additionally, 60 percent of survey respondents noted the importance of upholding the First Amendment rights online, even in cases involving distasteful content, while 86 percent of participants said that governments should not have more control over social media content than companies that own the platform.

“Generally, respondents supported users or companies deciding what content was appropriate for their online communities, not government,” said CCIA President Matt Schruers during a press conference. “There was broad agreement among people of all political leanings.”

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) announced in September that it will weigh the constitutionality of social media laws in Florida and Texas. In the challenge, the State of Florida argues that social media platforms’ choices to host or censor content should not be considered protected speech. Instead, they assert that the pertinent First Amendment concerns pertain to the rights of Florida residents.

The case centers around a 2021 Florida law that imposes fines, ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 per day, on large social media companies that removed or de-platformed political candidates.  An auxiliary function of the Florida legislation requires social media companies to publish standards about issues such as blocking users and apply the standards consistently.

Attorneys representing Florida emphasized that major social media platforms ostensibly hold a “virtual monopoly” over social media expression. They also pointed out a disparity between the 11th Circuit’s ruling, which invalidated Florida’s law, and a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which upheld a similar law in Texas.

“Under the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning, social-media behemoths have a First Amendment right to cut any person out of the modern town square, for any reason, even when they do not follow their own rules or otherwise act in bad faith,” reads Florida’s petition for a Writ of Certiorari, filed in 2021. “That ruling strips States of their historic power to protect their citizens’ access to information, implicating questions of nationwide importance.”

One month after Florida petitioned the Supreme Court, former president Donald Trump filed a brief in support of the state, contending that social media companies have significant influence over public discourse and political life due to their economic power. Trump expressed support for the statute and elucidated his belief that the law does not dictate what content should be allowed or banned but rather focuses on transparency and fairness.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation into law in 2021 after the state House voted 77-38 to pass the bill and the state Senate approved it in a 23-17 vote. Florida’s law includes 12 major provisions and requires platforms to furnish a “thorough rationale” for each content moderation decision, a requirement the 11th Circuit deemed “particularly onerous.”

The law also prevents platforms from banning political candidates or “journalistic enterprises” and, like Texas’ law, is targeted at the largest social media companies.

“Social media platforms have unfairly censored, shadow banned, deplatformed, and applied post-prioritization algorithms to Floridians,” reads the measure. “The state has a substantial interest in protecting its residents from inconsistent and unfair actions by social media platforms.”

Both the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the Florida law from taking effect, citing concerns related to the First Amendment, leading the state to subsequently petition the SCOTUS to take up the case.

Last August, the Biden administration called upon SCOTUS to examine parts of the Florida and Texas laws, arguing that the measures infringe on the First Amendment rights of the companies. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed the court briefing, saying that the Republican-backed laws hamper the social media platforms’ freedom to curate content and necessitate intricate justifications for their content-moderation choices.

The filing came in support of two industry trade groups who are challenging the laws: NetChoice and CCIA, which represent some of the world’s largest tech companies, including Google parent company Alphabet, Facebook parent company Meta, and X, formerly known as Twitter.


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