From Brazil to Texas, politicians are trying to throw out platforms’ ability to moderate content
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked a controversial Texas law with dramatic implications for the content moderation processes of the world’s largest social media companies.
The legislation prohibits social media platforms with more than 50 million active monthly users — such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube — from taking down posts that express a user’s “viewpoint.” It also allows Texans, as well as the state, to sue companies that violate this prohibition. Upon signing the bill, Texas governor Greg Abbott denounced “a dangerous movement by social media companies to silence conservative viewpoints and ideas” and invoked the law as a way to defend free speech. Critics say the legislation would effectively bar social media sites from taking down content altogether — including propaganda and hate speech — and violates companies’ rights to moderate the material posted by their platforms’ users, which are codified in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
But Texas isn’t the only jurisdiction to try, and fail, to regulate platforms’ content moderation policies in response to allegations of conservative censorship. An appeals court put a similar Florida law on pause a few weeks ago.
And at the global level, this is nothing new. In Brazil last year, Congress overturned an order signed by President Jair Bolsonaro prohibiting social media companies from taking down users’ content without a court order. Announcing the decision on its official Twitter page, the Brazilian government claimed it was “taking the global lead in defending free speech on social networks.”
Last year, I talked to Artur Pericles, head of research at InternetLab, a technology-focused research center in Sao Paulo, about how the conversation around content moderation in the U.S. had influenced Bolsonaro’s supporters in Brazil and the through lines between lawmakers’ concerns about anti-conservative bias in both countries. Pericles told me two bills introduced in Brazil by members of the right-wing Partido Social Liberal explicitly referenced former President Donald Trump’s deplatforming from Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riot. Another Brazilian bill involving content moderation shared similarities with a proposal introduced by U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, Pericles noted. “People on the right who support the president have been drawing on the conversation in the United States for a while now,” he told me.
The Texas and Brazil proposals underscore how the suppression of right-leaning voices has become a rallying cry among conservative politicians in both countries. This narrative is also influencing policy proposals that could dramatically reshape the information ecosystem on social media as both countries gear up for major elections.
In Brazil, the stakes are especially high. Bolsonaro is running for re-election against former leftist President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva in what has been described as Brazil’s most consequential presidential election in decades. As Coda previously reported, Bolsonaro has used Trump-like tactics, questioning the legitimacy of the country’s upcoming October 2022 presidential race, casting doubt on the country’s electronic voting system, and doubling down on election fraud conspiracies. Online election-related disinformation played a significant role in the lead-up to Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018. It is easy to see how it could become even more rampant if Brazilian lawmakers can pass legislation barring platforms from making their own decisions about what kinds of content to remove.
One only needs to look to the U.S. to see the consequences of the widespread circulation of the Big Lie and how it has influenced public opinion: A majority of Republican voters now believe that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Could a Bolsonaro-driven Big Lie follow a similar trajectory in Brazil?
On this question, Pericles struck a note of cautious optimism.
“The good news is that Brazil isn’t a two-party system as the U.S. is in practice,” he explained. “I’m hoping that Bolsonaro wouldn’t be able to get so many people to believe in a Brazilian Big Lie, even if his most loyal base did. And the political system hasn’t been captured by Bolsonaro as Trump captured the Republican Party.”
As the race heats up, these issues are also likely to be a focal point in debate, given the two candidates’ drastically different approaches to social media and the internet at large. Under Lula’s previous tenure, from 2003-2010, Brazil’s Ministry of Culture spearheaded one of the world’s first participatory processes for developing legislation addressing the rights and responsibilities of both internet users and the companies that dominate online space. With input from thousands of citizens and technology experts in and outside the country, policymakers drafted the Marco Civil da Internet (Civil Framework for the Internet) that addressed many of the issues at hand. Similar to CDA 230 in the U.S., the Marco Civil, which became law in 2014, protects companies from liability for content posted by their users, absent a court order.
Over the next few months, I’ll be keeping an eye on the state of electoral misinformation in Brazil, as well as politicians’ efforts to crack down on platforms’ content moderation practices. If you have any thoughts, tips, or story ideas, please send me a note at [email protected]!
In other global news
Costa Rica was hit with yet another cyberattack last week. The digital disruption, which struck the country’s Social Security Fund, affected over 1,000 hospitals and clinics across the country. It’s the latest in a string of crippling digital attacks against the Central American nation’s government. Last month, a massive ransomware attack carried out by the Russian-based ransomware gang Conti crippled the country’s tax collection and export systems for more than a month and prompted the president to declare a state of emergency. While Costa Rica may seem like an unlikely target of the Russian hacking gang’s wrath, some experts believe Conti may be shifting its focus away from the U.S. and Europe and toward Central and South America, in possible retaliation against countries that have supported Ukraine.
Officials in Oregon are scrapping a controversial risk assessment algorithm used in child welfare cases to determine which families are investigated by social workers. Though they didn’t explain the reason behind the program’s elimination, the use of artificial intelligence tools in the child welfare system in the U.S. is coming under increasing scrutiny. Oregon’s decision comes in the wake of an investigation by the Associated Press that found a Pennsylvania algorithm used in the state’s child welfare system has disproportionately flagged Black children for child neglect investigations. My colleague, Caitlin Thompson, is working on a related story about algorithmic tools in the U.S. child welfare system. If you have thoughts for her, please get in touch at [email protected].
Now you can read the news through a Russian lens, with the Yandex Dashboard. Curious to see the top headlines related to Russia’s war in Ukraine on any given day on Russia’s leading search engine? There’s a new tool for that. The Yandex Dashboard, created by the nonprofit Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), gives non-Russian speakers a glimpse into the country’s increasingly restrictive information ecosystem as its war against Ukraine stretches on. The dashboard, which aggregates Russian articles and search results daily from Yandex, Russia’s main search engine and news aggregator, highlights the top news articles and headlines Russian speakers come across when searching for war-related news. It “reveals how Yandex.ru, as an aggregator of news and as a search engine, directs Russian speakers worldwide to manipulate information — and at times to outright disinformation,” ASD explains.