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Delegates to sponsor resolution condemning social media purges

Del. Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants, plans to introduce a resolution condemning social media and tech companies. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Two members of the House of Delegates announced plan to introduce a resolution this legislative session condemning tech companies they say are censoring conservative voices in their efforts to remove violent and threatening posts and social media tools spreading those posts.

Delegates Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants, and Josh Holstein, R-Boone, released a statement Monday announcing their intent to introduced a resolution condemning “Big Tech” for removing conservative social media users and urging Congress to amend federal protections for social media platforms.

Speaking Tuesday in his office in the State Capitol Building, Barnhart said that Big Tech platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon among others — are violating the freedom of speech of conservative voices and called for freedom of expression to be restored.

“We believe that free speech represents the bedrock of American democracy, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal,” Barnhart said. “We believe ultimately what is going on with these tech companies — Twitter, Facebook, and these different outlets — it’s just unamerican. We believe that all speech should be welcomed and all debate should be welcomed.”

According to the Associated Press, Twitter removed more than 70,000 accounts tied to QAnon, a loose organization of people who believe that there is a secret cabal of Satan-worshipers who abuse and murder children among the nation’s elite. Several high-profile QAnon believers took part last week in a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building by supporters of President Donald Trump and his claims that the election was stolen from him.

“We’ve been clear that we will take strong enforcement action on behavior that has the potential to lead to offline harm,” Twitter said in a blog post Tuesday. “Given the violent events in Washington, D.C., and increased risk of harm, we began permanently suspending thousands of accounts that were primarily dedicated to sharing QAnon content.”

Facebook is also removing posts and pages that support “Stop the Steal” and claims that Republican and Democratic election officials in battleground states committed voter fraud by finding votes for former vice president Joe Biden, who won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 electoral votes. Biden received 81 million votes compared to Trump, who received 74 million votes.

Both Facebook and Twitter shut down social media accounts for Trump last weekend. Trump has been a prolific tweeter, known for his controversial posts over the last several years. Barnhart said it was hypocritical for social media platforms to shut down the President’s accounts when there are examples of other accounts remaining active after they violate the rules of the sites.

“We acknowledge that these are private companies. However, they are regulating public communication platforms where people can come and discuss things,” Barnhart said. “We just feel fundamentally that what we’re seeing on these sites is unacceptable. I’ve heard from constituents in my district and throughout the State of West Virginia that this censorship has got to stop and we have to promote free speech.

Both Google and Apple took action against Parler, a conservative alternative to Twitter where some users were discussing additional violent action leading up to Biden’s inauguration. Parler was removed from app stores, and Amazon booted Parler from its servers, causing the social media platform to go dark. Parler is now suing Amazon, accusing the company of stifling competition.

While some Republicans — such as U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri — want to repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Barnhart and Holstein want to see Congress make changes to Section 230 protections for tech giants and social media companies. Section 230 gives tech companies protections from being treated as publishers and responsible for the content created by others on their platforms.

“We do recognize that some of the valuable provisos and areas of Section 230. We don’t want to get rid of that wholesale,” Barnhart said. “We recognize the liabilities that are necessary to be able to operate the platforms. However, we want to make sure that regulation doesn’t turn into outright censorship of someone based on a political belief or political affiliation.”

If repealed, social media platforms would be open to legal action for the speech of others. But some believe that removing Section 230 protections would scare away competitors to Facebook and Twitter as well as increase censorship – the very things that Barnhart and Holstein are trying to prevent.

“If someone else’s words on a social media platform could lead to lawsuits, the easiest thing for Twitter or Facebook to do is to censor, i.e. ban, those posts,” said Rebecca van Burken, a policy analyst for the free market Reason Foundation in California in a November 2020 article. “If it lost Section 230’s protections, for example, Google might decide its wisest action is to block every allegedly questionable or unsavory website from showing up at all in Google’s search results. These companies should continue to be free to regulate their content as they see fit.”

Barnhart said the focus on conservative and pro-Trump social media accounts could create precedents that could affect the free speech of people on the political left down the road. That’s why, he said, it’s important to speak out against the actions of Big Tech.

“It may just be singling out conservatives now, but even if it was the other way around I would be advocating this way,” Barnhart said. “I feel like if you’re advertising a public site where you can have public expression and be able to speak your mind, then you should be able to speak your mind regardless. This is not an issue of partisanship; it’s an issue of patriotism.”

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