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House bill dealing with social media, elections becomes contentious

CHARLESTON — What started out Wednesday as a debate on social media’s role in West Virginia elections turned into scrutiny of a member’s own social media posts.

The West Virginia House of Delegates passed House Bill 3307 on Wednesday afternoon, creating the Social Media Integrity and Anti-Corruption in Elections Act. The bill passed 72-28, with five Republicans voting with the Democratic caucus against the bill. The bill now heads to the state Senate.

The Social Media Integrity and Anti-Corruption in Elections Act would provide requirements for social media companies to prevent corruption and provide transparency of election-related content made available on social media websites. Social media companies would need to seek approval from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office before publishing election information, though that rule doesn’t apply to users of social media accounts.

The bill would prohibit censorship of West Virginia political candidates on social media platforms by the companies that control those platforms, requiring the companies to provide timely service requests. It would limit social media companies from freezing or removing social media accounts of candidates.

The bill sets out a number of penalties for non-compliance, including a $100,000 fine per day if the State Election Commission finds a social media company in violation with provisions of HB 3307.

House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, said the bill is meant to make social media companies abide by similar rules that broadcasters must follow during an election season.

“This bill is a recognition of a changing dynamic in elections in this country,” Linville said. “Since the 1920s, we’ve had laws governing the opportunity for equal time on radio and television. And those are enshrined by the FCC. Social media, which is the most recent media technology, has demonstrated the potential for tremendous impact on voter information.”

As an example, Linville cited an incident during the 2020 election where Facebook posted the wrong primary election information after the state moved its primary from May to June. The mistake was caught by the Secretary of State’s Office and the information was corrected.

“Given the rise of social media and its corresponding influence on West Virginia voter information, now is the time for us to ensure that social media platforms who choose to participate in our state elections do so fairly, accurately and with accountability,” Linville said.

Opponents of the bill believe HB 3307 goes too far, perhaps interfering with the First Amendment freedom of speech rights of social media companies.

“I think I’m particularly opposed to this prior approval requirement for social media companies to publish any information about a long list of things related to the election,” said Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia.

“Facebook or Twitter won’t be able to publish any information about any candidate on the ballot without first going to the Secretary of State’s Office in writing and asking for permission to publish that information,” Hansen said. “There are a lot of attorneys in this room who can probably express an opinion about whether that violates the First Amendment.”

Del. Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, spoke in favor of the bill, claiming his own Facebook profile was locked by Facebook, preventing him from being able to use his campaign’s Facebook page during the 2020 election.

“I was one of those candidates,” Longanacre said. “I had to go actually knock on a lot of doors. I found a lot of hollers and ridge tops in my district that I didn’t even know existed, while my two opponents had the advantage of sitting home and using Twitter and Facebook.”

Under questioning from House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, Longanacre admitted that his Facebook was shut down in part because of liking a page for the conspiracy theory group QAnon, as well as a post demanding that the Black Lives Matter movement be considered a domestic terror group alongside the Ku Klux Klan.

Fluharty criticized the legislation as being unfriendly to the same tech companies lawmakers often claim they want to see come to West Virginia to do business.

“Hopefully Facebook will just delete West Virginia, because I think that’s where you guys all go to get these ideas for legislation like this,” Fluharty said. “We talk about bringing tech companies … and then we’re running legislation that says how tech companies can operate their companies … you’re not going to have anybody want to come here, do business, or open up any tech firms when you’re passing backwards legislation.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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