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California's new social media transparency law: Another step in the gradual erosion of free speech


As of January 1st, 2024, California’s Social Media Transparency and Accountability act came into effect. This law, which was signed in 2022, is stated by Purdue global to “protect the state’s citizens from online hate speech and disinformation.”

The bill mandates that public or semi-public social media companies post their terms of service with a primary focus on the content moderation procedures of the social media platform. These reports must be reported semiannually to the attorney general. Regarding enforcement, failure to comply with this law may result in fines of up to 15, 000$ per violation per day.

The enactment of this new law aligns with the escalating concerns and conversations surrounding the growing threat of misinformation. An opinion piece by NBC News describes the scope of the problem, which may provide insight on California’s decision to pass these new social media regulations. According to NBC news the simultaneous rise in ai generated misinformation and the growing mistrust of authorities play a key role in the rise of misinformation. Moreover, the piece argues that conservatives targeted attack at researchers calling out misinformation only furthered the crisis of misinformation that faces the US today.

  While both misinformation and disinformation are serious problems, California’s new regulation is clearly a step in wrong direction Although this law does not go as far as imposing how and what “misinformation” should be moderated, it sets a precedent for government intervention in online content moderation. With the potential for further social media regulation focused on content moderation, it is crucial to consider the likely consequences of such a trajectory.

  The first problem with government mandates around misinformation is the conceptual issue of what constitutes misinformation. At first one may perceive this as an odd concern, after all is misinformation not simply the spread of incorrect information? While it may initially seem straightforward, identifying the truth can be complex and nuanced. Given the possible ambiguity of the truth, giving legislators the ability to regulate “misinformation” may result in ideologically driven agendas that only hinder the flow of information. Allowing legislators to regulate misinformation opens the door to potentially biased agendas that could impede the free flow of information.

  Moreover, government content moderation runs the risk of unfairly censoring the press or political adversaries, undermining core principles of liberal democracy. In this 2021 paper the authors look at 100 laws to combat misinformation, they describe the results of these as having questionable success.

  Aside from the practical issues surrounding growing social media regulation, these regulations may also hinder human well-being. A foundational part of human flourishing is the ability to use practical reason to discern reality. When the government regulates speech, it impedes the development of individuals' analytical abilities, leading to a society where beliefs are accepted without understanding their underlying truth. Without individuals learning the fundamental skill of justification, they instead begin to outsource their thinking to others resulting in the deterioration of their critical thinking skills.

  While the intentions behind California's Social Media Transparency and Accountability Act may be noble in aiming to address the rising concerns of online hate speech and disinformation, the implications of government intervention in content moderation warrant careful consideration.

  The legislation sets a precedent for state involvement in regulating online speech, potentially leading to biased agendas and undermining principles of free expression. Moreover, the effectiveness of such regulations in combating misinformation remains questionable, as highlighted by research on similar laws. Beyond practical concerns, there is a broader issue at stake concerning individual autonomy and critical thinking skills, which may be compromised in a society where speech is heavily regulated by authorities.

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