Hate and harassment are urgent threats to religious freedom. And as a growing number of Americans find community online, many encounter the same, or increased vitriol in digital spaces as they do in person. The week of February 20th, 2023, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two cases with the potential to transform hateful content on social media. In Gonzales v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh, the Court considered what role social media platforms play in the proliferation of hate online
Platform Accountability for Online Content
Both cases take on the controversial Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. This provision has historically been interpreted to shield social media companies from prosecution for hateful content or misinformation on their platforms, placing the legal burden entirely on the user. However, as urgency grows around addressing hate online, Section 230 has received increased scrutiny to prevent platforms from ducking responsibility for the harm they spread.
In Gonzales v. Google, the Court considered the role of algorithms in boosting extremist content. The suit was brought by the family of an American student murdered in the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, seeking accountability for Google in promoting terrorism-related videos on YouTube.
Twitter v. Taamneh raised a similar question of platforms’ culpability in relation to terrorist activity under Section 2333 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, in addition to Section 230 of the CDA. This case asks whether Twitter is responsible for the growth of terrorist organizations for not taking more aggressive action to remove their content. Both cases have the potential to transform the law’s ability to regulate social media platforms.
Addressing the Threat of Online Hate
The power of social media is revolutionary. As the COVID-19 pandemic drove many religious communities to change when and how they gathered, online spaces opened new opportunities for connection. From Twitch Bible studies to Facebook food drives, freedom of religion is no longer confined to the physical world. But with substantial progress in technology come new sets of challenges. As these platforms facilitate understanding and innovation, they also provide bad actors with broader means to cause division and inspire fear, as exemplified in the oral arguments of this term’s tech cases.
On January 25th, 2023, Interfaith Alliance released a new resource on Big Tech, Hate, and Religious Freedom Online, and hosted a panel of leading experts to discuss the issue. Connecting the dots between our first freedom, our increasingly online lives, and the business practices that promote hate, this report calls for urgent measures around key policy areas. Together, through education and action, we can make clear that hate has no home in our communities on- and offline.