Violence on Capitol Hill Is a Day of Reckoning for Social Media

SAN FRANCISCO – On Twitter, users on Wednesday urged the company’s executive director Jack Dorsey to close President Trump’s account.

Civil rights groups intervened, saying actions by social media companies against calls for political violence were “long overdue”. And even venture capitalists who had made wealth by investing in social media urged Twitter and Facebook to do more.

“For four years you have been rationalizing this terror. Inciting violent treason is not free speech, ”wrote Chris Sacca, a technology investor who invested in Twitter, to Mr. Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “If you work in these companies, it’s up to you too. Shut it down.”

When pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol on Wednesday and halted the certification of electoral college votes, the role of social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in spreading misinformation and the megaphone for Mr Trump was criticized again.

For years, Mr. Trump had built his influence through rapid-fire tweets and by reaching out to millions of people on Facebook. Since losing the November election, he had used the platforms to question the election results and label them as fraudulent.

Twitter, Facebook and others had long resisted taking action against Mr. Trump’s posts and other toxic content. While the platforms had taken more steps against political misinformation in the months leading up to the election, they refused to remove Mr Trump’s posts and instead took half-steps, such as labeling his posts.

When violence broke out in Washington on Wednesday, longtime critics said it was the day the chickens came home to settle down for the social media companies.

“We know the social media companies have been laconic at best,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, to keep extremism from growing on their platforms. “Freedom of expression is not the freedom to incite violence. This is not a protected language. “

Renee DiResta, a researcher at Stanford Internet Observatory who studies online movements, added that the violence was the result of people engaging in closed social networks who believed the allegations of electoral fraud and election of Mr. Trump were stolen.

“This is a demonstration of the very real effects of echo chambers,” she said. “This was a remarkable rejection of the idea that there is an online and an offline world and that what is said online is in some way kept online. I hope this removes the notion from people’s minds. “

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube said Wednesday that they would review the situation and not tolerate calls for violence on their websites. In a statement, Twitter said it would take action against tweets that violate its policies and “investigate other escalated enforcement actions.”

YouTube said it removed several live streams showing participants storming the Capitol building with firearms. It also said it would increase authoritative news sources on its homepage, search results and in recommendations.

“The violent protests in today’s Capitol are a shame,” added Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. “We prohibit incitement and demand violence on our platform. We actively review and remove content that violates these rules. “

Mr Trump also urged his supporters to go home in a video he posted on several social media sites on Wednesday afternoon. “You have to go home now. We must have peace. We must have law and order, ”he said, repeating false claims that the election was stolen from him.

Twitter later added a label to Mr. Trump’s video, saying his fraud allegations were controversial and could lead to violence. Facebook and YouTube completely removed the video.

Critics said the statements made by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were too little, too late, after calls for violence and plans for protests had already spread on the platforms.

On Facebook, protesters had openly discussed what they were up to in Washington for weeks on a Facebook page called the Red-State Secession. The site had asked its approximately 8,000 followers to provide addresses of perceived “enemies” in the country’s capital, including the home addresses of federal judges, members of Congress and prominent progressive politicians.

Comments left on the page often included photos of guns and ammunition, as well as emojis suggesting members of the group were planning violence. A post on Tuesday said people should “be ready to use force to defend civilization”. Several comments below the post showed photos of assault rifles, ammunition and other weapons. Comments suggested “occupying” the capital and taking action to force Congress to reject the election results.

Facebook said it removed the Red-State Secession on Wednesday morning. Before it was removed, the page directed followers to other social media sites like Gab and Parler, which have gained popularity in right-wing circles since the election.

These alternative social media sites were full of Trump supporters organizing and communicating on Wednesday. #Stormthecapitol was a trending hashtag on Parler. Many Trump supporters on the sites also appeared to believe a false rumor that Antifa, a leftist movement, was responsible for committing violence during the protests.

“WAKE UP AMERICA IT IS ANTIFA and BLM Employees Committing the Violence, NOT TRUMP SUPPORTERS!” Said a Parler account member named @ Trumpfans100, providing no evidence to back up the allegations.

Parler officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can do next is unclear. Over the past year, some companies have stepped up efforts to moderate Mr Trump’s account even though they have stopped cutting his positions. Twitter started adding labels to Mr. Trump’s false and misleading Tweets last year and has blocked users from sharing the posts to limit their spread. Facebook has also attached labels to some of Mr. Trump’s posts to direct users to reliable and accurate dates.

On both Facebook and Twitter, executives met on Wednesday to find out how they should react, according to people with knowledge of the company. Facebook employees scoured the social network for public examples of protest organizations and removed a number of hashtag terms that were used to coordinate the protests on Wednesday.

“This level of insurrection shouldn’t exist, be it on the president’s Twitter platform or on Facebook, which enables people to recruit and engage in such dangerous activities,” said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, said in an interview. “This is an example of both where our democracy is being undermined and where people are not being brought to safety. You must immediately suspend the President’s account.

Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed to the coverage.

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