Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel speaking in support of a resolution to recognize the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in California on the floor of the Assembly, April 7, 2022.
(Photo/Courtesy Gabriel's office)
Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel speaking in support of a resolution to recognize the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in California on the floor of the Assembly, April 7, 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Gabriel's office)

First-of-its-kind California law would compel social media companies to disclose hate speech policies

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A first-of-its-kind California bill would require social media companies to disclose their content moderation policies to the public in an effort to stem the spread of online harassment.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Los Angeles, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, said a recent committee victory was a major step toward getting the bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. The measure passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee 9-0 on June 28 and now heads to the Appropriations Committee.

The bill, AB 587, would require social media platforms earning over $100 million annually to report to the attorney general’s office their policies on dealing with hate speech, extremism, misinformation, harassment and foreign political interference, as well as provide key metrics on problematic content and the enforcement of such policies. The bill would not require companies to institute specific policies to ban or censor speech.

“The bottom line on the bill is it’s basically hoping to bring more transparency to how major social media companies moderate content on their platforms,” Gabriel said. “We’re simply asking them, what is your policy for how you deal with [hate]? And then tell us how you enforce that policy.” Currently, no law in California requires social media companies to report their internal policies to the public.

Gabriel said AB 587 is the first step in fighting online hate.

RELATED: Antisemitic hate crimes in California at highest level in a decade, says state report

The bill is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which on June 21 released its Online Hate and Harassment report for 2022. It found that 23% of all social media users have reported experiencing online harassment in the past year, while 58% from marginalized communities experienced some form of harassment. Minority groups deal with the brunt of hate on social media, with 39% of Asian Americans and 66% of LGBTQ users reporting harassment, the report noted.

Jewish respondents were more likely to attribute any harassment to their religion. Among all respondents, 57% reported the harassment took place on Facebook, 27% on Instagram and 21% on Twitter.

Seth Brysk
Seth Brysk

Seth Brysk, the ADL’s S.F.-based regional director, said the organization has seen significant increases in hate crimes and incidents in the past five years, including an all-time high on the number of reported antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2021.

The widespread use of social media companies has contributed to that increase, he added.

“Technology plays a critical role for an extremist to be able to reach people, to recruit people and to radicalize people,” Brysk said. “These platforms, these conduits for hate are a critical aspect and an explainer as to why we’re encountering so much hate, and such increasing numbers over the last several years.”

The bill was first presented in 2021 but stalled in the Judiciary Committee due to concerns surrounding free speech. It faces continuing opposition from the Internet Coalition, a lobbying group that represents Google, Amazon and Meta, along with the California Chamber of Commerce, Consumer Technology Association, Internet Association, NetChoice and TechNet. Chief among their complaints are the burden of compliance and the concern that such detailed reporting of company policies would allow “bad actors” to evade content policies, Gabriel said.

Assemblymember Marc Berman, who represents Silicon Valley, said in a statement that he fully supports the legislation.

Berman stands at the front of a room addressing an audience
Assemblymember Marc Berman discusses the state high school ethnic studies curriculum at the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

“The unfortunate reality is that social media platforms have created a space for harmful content, such as misinformation and hate speech, to spread in our communities and around the world. This is a critically important issue that desperately needs solutions,” Berman said. “We have seen the detrimental consequences of hate speech online and this bill is a step in the right direction to mitigate these effects.”

If the bill goes through, Gabriel hopes the reporting on content moderation policies and data surrounding hate speech online will offer a clearer understanding of the problem and how to address it.

“This is not a silver bullet to solve all our problems,” Gabriel said. “But it will help inform what additional steps, if any, are the best that we can take to protect our communities.”

Should the bill clear the Senate Appropriations Committee it would head to the state Senate for a vote.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.