Just two days after 57 Senators found Donald Trump guilty of inciting the violence that unfolded at the United States Capitol building on January 6th, failing to reach the required 2/3 of votes required to convict him, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in a letter that she will seek to create an independent commission to provide a more complete account of that grim, historic day. If such a commission is indeed to be modeled closely on the 9/11 commission, then there will be expectations on its scale and scope commensurate with the nearly two year inquiry into the terror attacks in 2001. That scope should include a full account of the role of social media platforms in spreading disinformation, radicalizing groups and facilitating the planning of the violence that threatened the peaceful transfer of power in the United States for the first time in generations.
With a budget of $15 million, 10 commissioners and 80 full time employees and contractors, the 9/11 commission looked at a wide range of issues that came to the fore after the attack by Al Qaeda. It took a broad perspective on what led to the violence on that fateful day and the response to it, interviewing more than 1000 individuals in 10 countries on issues ranging from the activity of the perpetrators, such as how Al Qaeda financed, planned and organized the attack; how the terrorists evaded border security and law enforcement; the failure of intelligence agencies; necessary changes to commercial aviation and security; and the response of government at all levels. It educated the public about these issues through 10 days of hearings and the publication of a widely read final report that revealed new evidence to the American people. The commission resulted in significant new initiatives, particularly with regard to intelligence and security oversight and resource allocation. The 9/11 commission “ultimately offered recommendations that led to the reshaping of congressional oversight and intelligence coordination,” noted the New York Times in its article on Pelosi’s announcement.
A “1/6 Commission” would likely be created by the passage of legislation that would similarly establish its charter, provide it a budget and determine how it will function. So what vectors should be under consideration? Certainly, investigators would want to assemble all of the primary evidence available about the events of the day itself in a manner more exhaustive than possible in the limited context of an impeachment trial. But it would also want to look at a number of questions unanswered by that trial, including what law enforcement and intelligence agencies knew about the threat of violence; what the White House and other participants in the rally at the Ellipse knew; how the White House event on the 6th as well as the November and December Stop the Steal rallies were funded; and the extent to which Donald Trump, his campaign, his family, White House aides, and other proxies such as Roger Stone were involved in planning the day and coordinating with key groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers. And if it is to be comprehensive, just as the 9/11 commission considered security weaknesses in commercial infrastructure such as commercial aviation, the 1/6 Commission must consider how social media platforms were exploited and how their products enabled the attack.
“In terms of the social media environment, it played a very big role over the last four years in radicalizing people,” US Representative Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told me earlier this week. “We did a roundtable of the Intelligence Committee just two weeks ago on this very subject where we explored what was the role of social media in fomenting white nationalism and propagating conspiracy theories that are suffused with racism and anti-semitism like QAnon, and the experts describe this funneling effect online, where through very well worn tactics now, these groups send out messages broadly, pull people down the funnel, and then in increasingly selective ways isolate those who are most prone to act violently in furtherance of these extreme conspiracy theories and racist ideologies.”
Understanding this pipeline to extremism and violence is important to any full account of the events of 1/6. For instance, the 1/6 Commission may seek answers to a number of related questions:
- What role did platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube play in spreading and recommending content related to the former President’s false claims of voter fraud and campaign to delegitimize President Joe Biden’s victory? What was the total volume of these campaigns, and who were the primary participants?
- How did perpetrators of the disinformation campaign that led to the attack take advantage of specific features of the platforms, such as Facebook Groups, paid ads, and other affordances?
- What connections are there between the behavior of individuals charged with crimes on January 6th and their posts and engagement online?
- The platforms removed large numbers of accounts before and after the election associated with false claims and other extremist and fringe ideas, such as QAnon. What evidence do the platforms have which is no longer accessible?
- How has the metastasis of white nationalist and white supremacist ideology taken advantage of social media platforms, and what should be done in future to remove individuals and content associated with these ideologies from the platforms or reduce their reach?
- What retroactive steps could the platforms take to diminish false beliefs about the outcome of the 2020 election, such as notices and other push content to individuals who have spread or consumed false claims?
- What overarching regulatory or legislative proposals could help to strengthen the public sphere and avoid future crises spurred by violent demagogues?
Just as Al Qaeda terrorists exploited the openness of commercial aviation systems and other features of our society, the individuals that drove the false claims that convinced hundreds of people to commit acts of violence on 1/6 utilized social media platforms as a key enabler for their exploits. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Zello, Parler, Telegram and a variety of other platforms may have required far less technical mastery than a Boeing 757 or 767, but they were still key technologies that enabled the deadly events of that day, which were arguably more fundamentally threatening to American democracy than even the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“If you look at some of the actors that were involved that day, including the woman who was shot and killed, many of them were radicalized very quickly,” said Chairman Schiff. “It resembles so much the radicalization we are used to seeing of people radicalized by ISIS propaganda or Al Qaeda propaganda. So we do need to hold the social media companies accountable, we need to examine the immunity from liability that they have. Studying this part of the problem is going to be very important.”
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.