The violent pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday took shape on social media.
Before they crossed police barricades, battered down doors and forced lawmakers to evacuate the House and Senate chambers in the midst of a vote to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, and before they attended an earlier rally led by President Donald Trump that falsely undermined the legitimacy of the election results, the men and women who wrought chaos in the U.S. capital planned for Wednesday’s event on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Parler.
A number of prominent figures in the technology industry took to the same platforms on Wednesday to criticize their role as enablers of this tumultuous attempt to seize the seat of U.S. government.
“Blame for the violence today will appropriately fall on Trump and his enablers on Capitol Hill and in right-wing media,” said Roger McNamee, a tech investor and early adviser to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. “But internet platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and others — have played a central role.”
McNamee’s argument, that internet platforms have created algorithms that amplify hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories, while only selectively enforcing their terms of service to encourage more user engagement and ad revenue, resonated with others, who called for Twitter in particular to ban the president from his preferred platform.
Alex Stamos, a Stanford professor and former Facebook chief security officer, said policies the platforms have relied on in the past should no longer apply given the heightened stakes. “There have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance,” Stamos wrote on Twitter. “Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won’t do it.”
Twitter declined to comment on the specific question of removing Trump from the platform, but tweeted a general statement about the ongoing events. “In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, D.C., we are working proactively to protect the health of the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules,” the company wrote.
“Threats of and calls to violence are against the Twitter Rules, and we are enforcing our policies accordingly,” it continued, adding that the company is exploring “other escalated enforcement actions.” Those escalated enforcement actions came just hours later.
After the violence at the Capitol broke out, Trump posted a video reiterating his false claims of election fraud and urging his supporters to be peaceful. The video, posted to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, served as a test case for how platforms are responding in real time.
Twitter first labeled the video, noting in small lettering below that Trumps claims were “disputed” and retweets and likes on the post would be restricted “due to a risk of violence.” But later in the afternoon, the company deleted the post containing the video entirely, along with two other posts from Wednesday, marking the first time the platform had fully deleted anything posted by the president.
Just after 7 p.m. Eastern time, the company took an additional step, announcing that the president’s personal twitter account would be locked for 12 hours — but only if he deleted the three posts that it had already removed from public view. If he refused to delete those posts himself, then his account would remain locked indefinitely, the company added.
YouTube took down the video and it was working to promote authoritative news sources on the site’s home page and in search results and recommendations. “As the situation at the United States Capitol Building unfolds, our teams are working to quickly remove livestreams and other content that violates our policies, including those against incitement to violence or regarding footage of graphic violence,” YouTube spokesman Farshad Shadloo said in a statement. “We will remain vigilant in the coming hours.”
Shortly after that, Facebook followed suit, also moving to take down the video. “This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence,” tweeted Guy Rosen, vice president of integrity at Facebook.
Rosen later published a blog post on the day’s activity, saying that he and his team were “treating the events as an emergency.” He said the company’s response would include searching for and removing content that supported the storming of the Capitol, called for armed protests, called for protests violating the 8 p.m. curfew in Washington, D.C., or attempted to “restage violence tomorrow or in the coming days.”
Rosen defended the company’s vigilance in banning armed or violence-inciting protest groups such as the Oathkeepers or groups associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and added that the company will be taking the new measures of increasing the requirement of Facebook group administrators to approve posts, automatically disabling comments on content that draws high levels of hate speech or violence-inciting commentary, and more broadly using automatic systems to suppress the spread of content that may violate their policies.
But the Wednesday event had been organized on social media platforms for months. One Facebook group, Red State Secession, was run by a group that explicitly called for a revolution Jan. 6. The group cited as calls to arms four tweets from Trump asking supporters to attend events on Wednesday. Facebook finally shut down the group Wednesday afternoon, after Buzzfeed reporter Ryan Mac brought the group to light on Twitter.
“It was only a matter of time before extremism cultivated online made the leap into the real world,” McNamee said.
Online organizing has been used in the past to plan right-wing violence in Michigan and Wisconsin, and McNamee noted that social media was used to plan violent counterprotests during last summer’s wave of protests against racist policing in cities such as Minneapolis, Louisville, and Portland. “Internet platforms, Facebook in particular, played a central role in the organizing of extremist violence in those cities, as well as in Washington, DC today.”