Internet experts have welcomed the bans placed on US president Donald Trump by major social media platforms following his incitement online of the mobs that invaded the US Capitol, but they remain critical of these firms’ role in allowing disinformation and other harmful content to spread.
On 6 January 2020, right-wing protestors, in support of Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the election certification process from taking place.
It has been confirmed that five people were killed in the violence and a further 60 arrested.
Writing in Wired, early Facebook investor Roger McNamee argued that internet platforms – particularly Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter – have played a “fomenting and facilitating” role in enabling the violence that took place in Washington.
“In their relentless pursuit of engagement and profits, these platforms created algorithms that amplify hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories,” said McNamee, who is also a member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a collation of vocal Facebook critics that was formed in late September 2020 specifically to analyse and criticise the platform’s role in 3 November’s US presidential election.
“This harmful content is particularly engaging and serves as the lubricant for businesses as profitable as they are influential,” he added. “These platforms also enforce their terms of service in ways that favour extreme speech and behaviour, predominantly right-wing extremism.”
In response to Trump posting content inciting his supporters to violence, Facebook and Instagram initially placed a temporary block on his accounts before extending the suspension “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete”, according to a statement by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“Over the last several years, we have allowed president Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labelling his posts when they violate our policies,” he said. “We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech.”
But Zuckerberg added that the context was now “fundamentally different” after Trump used the Facebook platform to “incite violent insurrection” against the government.
“We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” he said.
Twitter also decided to take action over Trump’s use of its platform, suspending his account for 12 hours before reinstating access after three posts were deleted for “severe violations of our [Twitter’s] Civic Integrity policy”.
The “Twitter Safety” account later Tweeted on 7 January that “future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension” of Trump’s account.
Snapchat and YouTube have also taken action, with the former preventing Trump from making new posts (it is currently unclear when this ban will end) and the latter removing a video of him addressing a rally on the morning of the riots, in which he told supporters the election had been stolen.
McNamee further criticised the platforms for only taking action “after a tsunami of negative feedback” and “pressure from employees and policymakers”, but concluded that “irreversible damage had been done” already.
He added: “The scale of internet platforms is such that their mistakes can undermine democracy, public health and public safety even in countries as large as the United States. Facebook’s own research revealed that 64% of the time a person joins an extremist Facebook Group, they do so because the platform recommended it.”
In a statement released by the newly formed Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) – which was set up to ensure workers at Google’s parent company are treated fairly and that the company generally acts in an ethical manner – the group said social media has emboldened the US’s growing fascist movement.
“We are particularly cognizant that YouTube, an Alphabet product, has played in a key role in this growing threat, which has received an insufficient response by YouTube executives,” the AWU said.
“Workers at Alphabet have previously organised against the company’s continued refusal to take meaningful action to remove hate, harassment, discrimination and radicalisation from YouTube and other Alphabet-operate platforms, to no avail.”
The statement added that YouTube was “avoiding proactive action” being called for by both the public and workers, and that it would “continue to function as a vector for the growth of fascist movements if it persists in prioritising advertisers while exposing the public”.
Disinformation driven by ‘political elites’
Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook and director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, Tweeted, by contrast, that “the disinformation problem is almost uniquely being driven by political elites”, including Trump.
“This means that action on a minority of accounts by a handful of platforms might actually have impact,” he said, adding that research from the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), of which he is a member, shows that reducing the spread of disinformation “doesn’t require widespread suppression”.
Commenting on its research, the EIP said: “We can see that several domestic verified Twitter accounts have consistently amplified misinformation about the integrity of the election. These are often stories revolving around misleading narratives about mail-in ballots, destroyed or stolen ballots, officials interfering with election processes, misprinted or invalid ballots, and more.”
It added that although social media platforms have been taking action in removing or at least labelling content that can be misleading, this often occurs after the content has already been widely disseminated.
“Platforms may need to begin enacting stronger sanctions to accounts and media outlets who are repeat offenders of this type of misinformation,” it said. “This could include labelling accounts who repeatedly share misleading information about voting or even removal from the platform. Labelling or removing just the content after virality may not be enough to curb the spread of misinformation on their platforms.”
Amplification of disinformation about the Capitol riot
Despite taking action to suspend Trump from their respective platforms, the social media platforms have subsequently been used to spread disinformation about the riots.
For example, on the day of the riot, the Washington Times published a story that claimed XRVision “used its software to do facial recognition of protesters and matched two Philadelphia Antifa members to two men inside the Senate”. It further claimed that one man “has a tattoo that indicates he is a Stalinist sympathiser” and the other “is someone who shows up at climate and Black Lives Matter protests in the West”.
The story, which was based on a single unnamed source simply referred to as “a retired military officer”, did not name the protestors ostensibly identified by the facial-recognition system, and was later removed from the Washington Times site with a prominent correction.
“An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that XRVision facial recognition software identified Antifa members among rioters who stormed the Capitol Wednesday,” it said. “XRVision did not identify any Antifa members. The Washington Times apologises to XRVision for the error.”
But despite the report being false, it had already gone viral, and was cited in the House of Representatives by Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, an ardent Trump supporter.
“I don’t know if the reports are true, but the Washington Times has just reported some pretty compelling evidence from a facial rec company showing that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters… and were in fact members of the violent terrorist group Antifa,” Gaetz told the House.
Despite the claim being untrue, and the report itself being retracted with a correction, various clips of Gaetz’s statement have been shared tens of thousands of times over Twitter.
For example, one clip retweeted by Gaetz himself has, at the time of writing, more than 12,400 retweets and 31,500 likes, while another clip he posted directly to his Twitter has over 7,300 retweets and 22,700 likes – both of which repeat the Washington Times’ false claim. The clips have more than 909,000 and 205,000 views, respectively.
According to data analytics from CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring and search platform owned by Facebook, the original Washington Times story has been shared more than 87,000 times.