Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot forced social networks to look at their ugly side

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Days before a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol, social media posts alerted a deadly January 6 riot.

Maryland resident Andrew Ryan Bennett wrote in a Facebook post shared on January 4, 2021, with #STOPTHESTEAL: “You better be ready, chaos is coming and I’ll be in DC on 1/6/2021 fighting for my freedom!” Two days later, Bennett was broadcasting live videos on Facebook from inside the Capitol. The videos featured photos of Bennett, wearing a baseball cap with the Proud Boys logo, chanting “Smash it!” Outside the speaker’s lobby door, where a woman was shot dead, according to the FBI.

Bennett was one of more than 700 federal prosecutors charged with crimes related to the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill. Some of these people logged their participation in the fray on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube owned by Google.

A year after the insurgency, US lawmakers, researchers and journalists are still examining the role social media networks played in the attack that left five dead. Members of Congress criticized the companies for minimizing their role in the riots. Motivated by the attack, social networks have looked closely at how to tackle disinformation spread by politicians and public figures.

An investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post published Tuesday found evidence that Facebook played a “decisive role in spreading the lies that fueled the January 6 violence.” The media reported that at least 650,000 posts in Facebook groups attacked the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidential victory over Donald Trump, and many called for political violence.

Trump and his supporters continue to promote baseless claims on social networks that the elections were stolen from him. Fearing the dangers of violence, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites last year took the rare step of removing Trump from their platforms.

Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke Thursday about the attack on the Capitol, calling on Americans to confront the reality of the “brutal attack” that occurred a year ago.

“We have to be very clear about what is true and what is a lie,” Biden said, speaking from Statuary Hall in the US Capitol. “Here’s the truth. The former president of the United States of America created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election.”

During his remarks, Biden criticized Trump for his lack of action on January 6, as well as for his role in inciting and inciting the mobs. “They came here in a fit of rage,” Biden said. “Not in the service of America, but in the service of one man.”

Trump canceled a scheduled press conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Thursday but is scheduled to hold a rally on Jan. 15 in Arizona. Here is a look at the impact of the attack on social networks:

Social media is modifying policies, introducing new tools

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Trump had a large following on Twitter and Facebook.

Angela Lang / CNET

Trump’s indefinite suspension of Facebook on January 7, 2021, forced the social network, which renamed itself Meta in October, to examine how to moderate rhetoric posted by public figures. Trump had 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram, a photo service owned by the social media giant.

In June, Facebook introduced new enforcement protocols for content posted by public figures during times of civil unrest and violence. Facebook made the changes after a semi-independent supervisory board backed Trump’s suspension, but noted in its decision that the company does not describe indefinite suspensions in its content policies. Facebook then clarified that Trump would be suspended from Facebook for two years, and the social network said it would assess the risks of violence towards the end of the suspension period, which runs until at least January 2023.

Despite Trump’s comment, Media Matters for America said Thursday that the former president’s posts from January 6 are still receiving interactions and that his fundraising committee has posted hundreds of ads.

The social network also said it will provide regular updates in 2022 about when it leaves content that violates its rules due to newsworthiness and will no longer assume that politicians’ rhetoric is essentially a public interest. Before Biden’s inauguration, Facebook said it removed content that included the phrase “Stop Theft,” banned US ads promoting gun accessories and protective gear, and blocked the creation of new events happening around the Capitol, among other steps.

Trump had a much larger presence on Twitter, with nearly 89 million followers. Twitter permanently suspended the former president for violating its rules against glorifying violence. In response to the attacks also, Twitter People are no longer allowed to reply to, like, or retweet Tweets that violated the updated Civil Integrity Policy and have permanently suspended thousands of accounts that primarily share QAnon content.

The company then began asking the public for their feedback on whether they believed world leaders should be subject to the same rules as other users. It launched a beta program called Birdwatch where users can identify tweets they believe are misleading and add more context, and has partnered with Associated Press and Reuters to raise the level of trusted information on the platform.

“Our approach both before and after January 6th has been to take strong enforcement action against accounts and Tweets that incite violence or may lead to harm offline. Engagement and focus across government, civil society and the private sector is critical,” a spokesperson said. On behalf of Twitter in a statement: “We recognize that Twitter plays an important role, and we are committed to doing our part.”

US lawmakers still want answers from social networks

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before lawmakers in March.

James Martin / CNET

In March, US lawmakers questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey, who was CEO of Twitter at the time, about a variety of topics, including the rebellion.

“I think the responsibility here rests with the people who took action to break the law and do the rebellion,” Mark Zuckerberg said.

While Zuckerberg played down Facebook’s role, Dorsey acknowledged that Twitter played a role. Representative Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, asked executives to answer “yes” or “no” to a question about whether their programs fueled the spread of misinformation and the planning of the Capitol Hill riots.

Dorsey replied, “Yes.” “But you also have to take into account the broader ecosystem. It’s not just about the technology systems that we use.”

In August, a House select committee tasked with investigating the January 6 attack requested records from 15 social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, YouTube, Gab and Parler. As part of the request, the commission also asked the companies about any policy changes that have been made to address disinformation, postings that condone violent extremism, and other offensive content.

The commission did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation.

A whistleblower comes forward on Facebook

Francis Hogan testifies in the US House of Representatives

Former Facebook employee Frances Hogan testifies during a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 1.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Criticism of Facebook’s role has also come from within the company. Internal documents compiled by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, as the whistleblower, shed more light on the social network’s response to the January 6 attack. The documents showed that Facebook employees felt the company had not done enough to crack down on disinformation ahead of the 2020 US presidential election.

A complaint filed on Haugen’s behalf with the US Securities and Exchange Commission accuses Facebook of misleading public investors about its role in perpetuating disinformation and violent extremism related to the 2020 election and the January 6 rebellion.

Haugen’s legal team has disclosed revised documents to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. A consortium of news organizations, including CNET, has also watched the redacts.

In the complaint, Haugen accused Facebook of failing to adopt or continue to take measures to combat disinformation and violent groups, including content related to the January 6 insurgency, in order to “promote penetration and growth on its platforms.” The complaint said the social network, for example, could have done more to limit the re-share of posts containing misinformation.

Since the documents were released, US lawmakers and advocacy groups have been pushing for more regulations including the Federal Data Privacy Act.

“It is time for Congress to ensure that Facebook puts our safety over their earnings,” said Jose Alonso Muñoz, deputy director of communications for United We Dream, a nonprofit organization focused on the immigrant community.

CNET’s Kari Mihalcik contributed to this report.

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