A video on Facebook claiming that Washington police unlawfully attacked Jan. 6 protesters racks up nearly 140,000 views. Across YouTube and Twitter, users post thousands of comments claiming Joe Biden’s presidency is a fraud. Within fringe social networks, extremists openly discuss violent attacks on Pennsylvania and Arizona election officials who approved the 2020 vote count.
A year after supporters of former President Donald Trump staged a deadly assault on the Capitol, the social media platforms where people organized and celebrated the riot are still ablaze with the same rumors, threats and election misinformation that flourished online before last year’s violence.
videos claiming that Trump’s opponents used Covid-19 as a biological weapon to steal the election still rack up tens of thousands of views. (After POLITICO flagged one video making those allegations, which had garnered more than 411,000 views, YouTube removed it because it violated the company’s election integrity policy.) And on Gettr, a right-wing social network popular with many Trump supporters, some users continue to call for the hanging of elected officials they accuse of undermining the country’s democratic traditions.
Across all six social networks POLITICO examined — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gab, Gettr and Telegram — conspiracy theorists frequently associated the outcome of the 2020 election with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That includes unfounded allegations that the federal government was limiting people’s freedoms to favor Biden’s political agenda.
Mary McCord, a former national security official and executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
“They’ve mainstreamed ideologically driven violence,” she added. “An alarming number of Americans now believe that violence may be necessary to ‘save the country.'”
A political hot potato
calling for an end to hostilities. Trump himself faced revulsion from many of his supporters and even some of his own appointees immediately after Jan. 6.
That initial bipartisanship gave the social media giants political cover to remove reams of election misinformation and hand over data to law enforcement agencies investigating the attack. The bans of Trump — though Google’s YouTube platform and Facebook reserved the right to reinstate him before the 2024 presidential election — also marked a watershed moment.
“Trump being deplatformed was when the companies crossed a line into a new type of enforcement,” said Katie Harbath, a former senior Facebook public policy executive who previously worked for the Senate Republicans’ national campaign arm. “After that, they’ve felt more comfortable about taking down content posted by politicians.”
That comfort did not last long.
Instead, GOP voters and politicians have increasingly embraced the falsehoods about the 2020 election that helped stoke the attack, while Congress — and many in the country — is split along party lines about what really happened on Jan. 6. That has left social media companies vulnerable to partisan attacks for any action they take or fail to take linked to last year’s riots.
To Democrats, the companies simply haven’t done enough.
“It’s clear that some social media companies have chosen profits over people’s safety,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has brought the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google to testify about their role leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. “These corporations have no intention of making their platforms safer, and instead have taken actions to amplify content that endangers our communities and incites violence.”
Facebook video that has received 309,000 views since early December, had her personal Twitter account permanently suspended this week for posting Covid misinformation.)
They’re also rallying around the people who have been kicked off of social media.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has threatened reprisals against the liability protections that online companies enjoy under a law known as Section 230 — which shields companies from lawsuits for most user-posted content and allows them to moderate or remove material they find objectionable.
McCarthy warned in a series of tweets on Tuesday, after Greene’s suspension, that a future Republican House majority would work to ensure that if Twitter and other social media companies remove “constitutionally protected speech (not lewd and obscene),” they will “lose 230 protection.”
“Acting as publisher and censorship regime should mean shutting down the business model you rely on today, and I will work to make that happen,” he added.
To Democrats, the platforms’ failure to stop all Jan. 6 hate speech from circulating online highlights the need for new laws. They hoped to gain momentum from last fall’s disclosures by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who released internal documents showing the tech giant had struggled to contain insurrectionists’ posts in the run-up to Jan. 6.
Democratic-led bill introduced after Haugen’s Senate appearance seeks to remove online platforms’ Section 230 protections if they “knowingly or recklessly” use algorithms to recommend content that can lead to severe offline emotional or physical harm. The bill has no Republican backing and has drawn criticism for potentially infringing on free speech.
In multiple briefings, lawmakers and staffers of both parties confronted the large social media companies with accusations that they had played a role in attacks, according to two tech executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door meetings. The discussions have often turned personal, with policymakers accusing the companies of playing fast and loose with American democracy.
With little bipartisan agreement, one of the tech executives added, the social networks are increasingly cautious in how they handle Jan. 6-related content that does not categorically violate their terms of service.
“Congress has struggled to find an appropriate path forward,” Coons conceded when asked about lawmakers’ role in handling Jan. 6 and election misinformation. “We have different views of what’s the harm that most needs to be stopped based on our politics and because — as a society — we’re committed to free speech.”
The misinformation rabbit hole
debunked claims from right-wing news outlets alleging that election officials committed fraud to sway the 2020 election in favor of Biden. Almost none of these posts ran with disclaimers that such claims were false.
separate edited version of that video, which has drawn almost 100,000 views, did not break its standards. Both were reposts of an original video that Google had taken down for breaching its community standards.
On Twitter, scores of users — mostly with small followings — spread conspiracy theories that Democrats and Black Lives Matter protesters were behind the Jan. 6 attacks. These often linked to videos on fringe streaming sites such as Odysee and Rumble, where right-wing influencers also share false claims that hackers compromised voting machines to steal votes away from Trump.
Within alternative social networks like Telegram, white supremacist groups — some with memberships into the tens of thousands and direct ties to domestic terrorist organizations — have frequently posted threats against election officials. They also issued violent calls to arms, telling supporters that people should take to the streets if Democrats try to steal the midterm elections.
None of this content ran with disclaimers, or was moderated for misinformation.
“This problem is getting worse,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, whose team has traced the evolution of domestic extremism after the Capitol Hill riots. “We’ve got a political violence problem in this country, and it hasn’t dissipated after Jan. 6.”
Haugen as a game changer
announced draft legislation with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that would require social media companies to give outside researchers access to internal data. Facebook had faced criticism weeks before the 2020 election for blocking New York University from tracking the way the company targeted political ads at users.
Coons said more data would address a major stumbling block for congressional regulation of tech companies: lack of transparency into how the social media companies’ algorithms operate. Similar proposals are also making their way into law in the European Union.
Additionally, Portman said he wants the bill to increase transparency around the big tech companies and provide lawmakers with “high-quality, well-vetted information we need to do our job most effectively.”
Given the partisan disagreements over the 2020 election and tech’s role leading up to Jan. 6, “we are having a hard time finding a course of action,” Coons said. “That’s why I thought focusing first on a neutral, bipartisan transparency and research approach was the concrete next step we can take.”
Separately, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) is working on a bill she expects to introduce in mid-January to create a Federal Trade Commission bureau run by technology experts to act as a watchdog over tech companies. Trahan said the bureau would issue guidance on ethical platform design and “have the teeth to go after these companies that falsely claim that they follow these guidelines.”
Only one bipartisan bill formally introduced in the current Congress — the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act (S. 797 (117)) — would require platforms to provide biannual transparency reports on what content they label and remove. This would help provide a greater window into platforms’ content moderation decisions when it comes to material like misinformation.
Jan. 6: ‘Appetizer of what’s to come’?
With Democrats holding a slim House majority and the Senate evenly divided, none of these bills is expected to be a top priority issue for leadership before the midterm elections.
But Trahan said Congress needs to act quickly — and that ensuring access to the online companies’ data is essential for election security going into the midterms. As a stopgap move, Biden’s White House is considering piggybacking on voluntary measures already in place in Europe that require social media platforms to provide regular reports on how they combat misinformation.
“I think Jan. 6 is an appetizer of what’s to come if Congress doesn’t act, and the platforms are banking on us not acting,” Trahan said. “They’re putting so much money into lobbying to ensure that we don’t act.”
Yet Washington may need to look inward before any change can occur.
“Congress should be thinking about how they plan to regulate themselves as members cross the line from fair campaigning on differences of opinion to rhetoric that could be incitement or could incentivize attacks or harassment on other members,” said Shannon Hiller, the executive director of Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, which conducts nonpartisan research on political violence.
“There is a risk that we end up getting into the heat of the campaign season closer to the midterms and realizing that we haven’t set those standards and norms together,” she added.