On Sunday, Facebook Vice President of Policy and Global Affairs Nick Clegg pushed back on CNN’s Brian Stelter when the host of Reliable Sources asked Clegg to respond to expected allegations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen about the role the platform played in the events of January 6th.
“I think if the assertion is that January the 6th can be explained because of social media, I just think that’s ludicrous. The responsibility for the violence of January the 6th and the insurrection on that day lies squarely with the people who inflicted the violence and those who encouraged them, including then-President Trump, and candidly, many other people elsewhere in the media who were encouraging the assertion that the election was stolen,” he said, suggesting that the relationship between social media and divisions in society is unclear. “I think a sweeping assertion that the violence that happened on January the 6th can be explained primarily, secondarily, any other way by social media is a woeful simplification of the much wider divisions in society, which had been brewing for a very long time.”
This argument is not simply Clegg’s formulation– it is the overly rehearsed company line:
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg advanced it when testified before the House Energy & Commerce Committee in March, where he placed the blame on former President Trump and a “political and media environment that drives Americans apart.” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) asked Zuckerberg, “if your platform bears some responsibility for disseminating information related to the election and the Stop the Steal movement that led to the attack on the Capitol.” Zuckerberg replied, “I think our responsibility is to build systems that can help…then Rep. Doyle cut him off, asking for a yes or no answer. “Congressman, our responsibility is to make sure that we build effective systems to help….” Rep. Doyle cut him off again, noting that “the gentlemen chooses not to answer the question.”
- Later in the hearing, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) asked Zuckerberg, “do you still deny that your platform was used as a significant megaphone for the lies that fueled the insurrection?” In reply, Zuckerberg said, “There was content on our services from some of these folks, I think that was problematic, but by and large by putting in place policies banning QAnon, banning militias, banning other conspiracy networks, we generally made our services inhospitable to a lot of these folks, and that had the unfortunate consequence of having those folks not use Facebook and use other places as well.”
- The argument was repeated by Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Vice President of Content Policy, on CNN on Oct. 5. She was asked, “does Facebook take any responsibility for what happened on January 6th, since it allowed the big election lie, propagated by Donald Trump, to proliferate on the site?” Bickert replied, “the responsibility for January 6th, I can’t be more clear about this than to say the responsibility for January 6th lies with those who broke the law, and those in politics and elsewhere who incited them.” Like Sandberg and Zuckerberg, she pointed to all of the work the platform did to prepare for the election and said she was proud of her own part in that effort.
The Facebook argument about January 6th is a classic scarecrow. No one can plausibly argue that Facebook or other social media platforms are primarily responsible for the deep divisions in the United States or the incitement to violence on January 6th. But that does not mean it is wrong to be concerned with the role that social media plays in exacerbating divisions, and certainly in creating the conditions for — and indeed facilitating — political violence. Haugen’s account adds to what is known, and prompts new questions that congressional investigators should pursue. The publicly available evidence now suggests Facebook and its most senior executives are deliberately misleading the public about the role the platform played in the events leading up to and including January 6th.
Facebook’s story doesn’t add up
Long before Jan. 6, and indeed before the 2020 election, Facebook understood the relationship between its platform, election disinformation and the potential for violence. It stands to reason that it only took actions and made investments and statements to mitigate the possibility of violence related to the election precisely because it understood its vital role in the information ecosystem.
Mark Zuckerberg himself warned about the general possibility of civil unrest after the election in the summer of 2020, announcing measures the company would take to help avoid it. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Horwitz reported on Jan. 31, 2021 that the “company’s data scientists had warned Facebook executives in August  that what they called blatant misinformation and calls to violence were filling the majority of the platform’s top ‘civic’ Groups,” with an exemplary group of 58,000 seeing “enthusiastic calls for violence every day.”
Another reliable account points to the fact that Facebook understood the nature of its role and built teams to act on it. In their book An Ugly Truth, the New York Times’ reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write that specific teams inside Facebook were monitoring the runup to January 6th and watching in horror as the attack unfolded, because they had warned internally that here might indeed be violence:
Thousands of miles away, from their homes in the verdant suburbs surrounding [Menlo Park], Facebook executives watched with horror. On the advice of the security team, who warned that there was potential for violence in Washington that day, the group held a virtual meeting to discuss contingency plans. It had been two months since the U.S. presidential election had ended, but executives felt like they had been holding their collective breath since November 3. “None of us had had a chance to exhale. We were still waking up every day feeling like the election wasn’t yet over, and all eyes were on our response to Trump’s unwillingness to concede the race to Biden,” recalled one of the executives.
After Jan. 6th, Facebook analysts produced an internal report titled, “Stop the Steal and Patriot Party: The Growth and Mitigation of an Adversarial Harmful Movement,” a document that noted it was important for the company to “look back to learn what we can about the growth of the election delegitimizing movements that grew, spread conspiracy, and helped incite the Capitol Insurrection.” First reported by BuzzFeed News, the report explores the growth of the Stop the Steal movement across Facebook Groups and Pages, and the role of specific individuals who helped plan the rally in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6. It notes that some dangers grew “despite our attempts to prevent it,” and that the company had too few policies around coordinated harms, particularly those perpetrated by authentic users. “The harm existed at the network level: an individual’s speech is protected, but as a movement, it normalized delegitimization and hate in a way that resulted in offline harm and harm to the norms underpinning democracy,” says the report.
It is also worth noting that before the company settled on shifting the blame for Jan. 6 entirely to political elites, traditional media and away from social media, it first sought to blame other social media platforms. Days after the insurrection, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.” This statement turned out to be misleading at best, as Department of Justice charging documents repeatedly referenced Facebook and journalists uncovered more evidence of activity related to the Stop the Steal movement and planning for violence.
Indeed, based on the trove of documents that Haugen brought forward, her lawyers at the nonprofit group Whistleblower Aid filed a disclosure statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleging that Facebook made “material misrepresentations and omissions in statements to investors” related to “its role perpetuating misinformation and violent extremism relating to the 2020 election and January 6th insurrection.” The document cites “original evidence” that suggests a variety of statements made by executives, including by Zuckerberg and Clegg, about the company’s s role in stoking division are deceptive:
- A document titled “What is Collateral damage?” states: “We have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech, and misinformation on Facebook and the family of apps are affecting societies around the world. We also have compelling evidence that our core product mechanics, such as virality, recommendations, and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part of why these types of speech flourish on the platform… the net result is that Facebook, taken as a whole, will be actively (if not necessarily consciously) promoting these types of activities. The mechanics of our platform are not neutral.”
- A document titled “Capitol Riots Breaks the Glass” references an immediate response to the violence on Jan. 6 to use “Levers, Previously Rolled Back” to demote “content deemed likely to violate our Community Standards in the areas of hate speech, graph violence, and violence & incitement” and additional measures to give administrators more responsibility to review and approve posts in civic groups of concern, making changes to “explicitly include delegitimizing terms (ex. stop the steal) in to the civic classifier,” and limiting the rate at which users can invite others to join “concerning groups.”
- One document from November 2020 titled “Misinfo in comments” states: “Not only do we not do something about combustible election misinformation in comments, we amplify them and give them broader distribution.”
- A document titled “Response to events in early January 2021- lessons for algorithmic interventions” references “several of the top [reported] posts called for [violence], suggested the overthrow of the government would be [desirable].”
- A document titled “Comments on Zuckerberg’s response to capitol riots” appears to include employee comments on an internal message board such as: “We should have adapted already long ago…. There were dozens of Stop the Steal groups active until yesterday…. With the unprecedented resources we have, we should do better.” It went on to say, “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s now out of control.”
Potential next steps for congressional investigators
Facebook’s orchestrated public rejection of its role in propagating false election information and incitements to violence that led to the events of January 6 may be an attempt to preempt further scrutiny, including by the House Select Committee that is investigating the insurrection. The legislation that established the Committee mandates that it investigate the “influencing factors that contributed to the domestic terror attack on the Capitol and how technology, including online platforms… may have factored into the motivation, organization and execution of the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol.” A member of the Select Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) tweeted that the committee will have to speak with Haugen. “According to this Facebook whistleblower, shutting down the civic integrity team and turning off election misinformation tools contributed to the Jan 6 insurrection,” he wrote. “The Select Committee will need to hear from her, and get internal info from Facebook to flesh out their role.”
While there may be desire in Congress to host future hearings with Zuckerberg, it may be more fruitful to subpoena the authors of the documents already provided to Congress for their testimony. Members of the Facebook Civic Integrity team, in which Haugen worked, may have significant insights into the role of the platform on Jan. 6. Thanks to Haugen, the Select Committee now has some of the team’s work product to review in advance.
Plus, the Select Committee can do more to encourage other whistleblowers to come forward. There is still much we do not know about Facebook and January 6th — including whether Facebook, like Parler, sent specific warnings to the FBI or other law enforcement agencies or domestic intelligence service before the attack on the Capitol. And, it would be useful to know more about another concern raised in the whistleblower’s documents — that “Facebook’s decision-making on content policy is routinely influenced by political considerations.” What were those considerations after the 2020 election, and did they affect the decision to relax Facebook’s posture on the potential threat of violence?
Finally, it is important to note that false election claims and conspiracies related to the 2020 election continue to propagate, and some observers have signaled that Facebook has further backed off enforcement of election disinformation in the intervening months since President Joe Biden assumed office. That is what makes these questions ever more urgent: January 6 is not an event solely in the past to be dismissed, as Zuckerberg and Clegg may prefer. Rather, it is an ongoing problem, and one that continues to metastasize on Facebook.
This piece published jointly with Just Security.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.