Today the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol issued subpoenas to Alphabet, Facebook (now Meta), Reddit and Twitter demanding records “relating to the spread of misinformation, efforts to overturn the 2020 election, domestic violent extremism, and foreign influence in the 2020 election.”
The Select Committee is also looking for assessments the platforms may have conducted related to their policies or systems after January 6. And, interestingly, the Select Committee seeks information related to the decisions at YouTube and Twitter that resulted in former President Trump’s suspension from those platforms after the insurrection.
The subpoenas follow earlier letters issued in August 2021, when the Select Committee requested documents from 15 social media, message app and live steaming companies, including the recipients of today’s subpoenas. In a statement today, Select Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) noted that months later, these companies have yet to answer “basic questions”:
“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps—if any—social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalizing people to violence. It’s disappointing that after months of engagement, we still do not have the documents and information necessary to answer those basic questions. The Select Committee is working to get answers for the American people and help ensure nothing like January 6th ever happens again. We cannot allow our important work to be delayed any further.”
Each subpoena raises specific concerns about activity on the platform it addresses:
YouTube was a platform for significant communications by its users that were relevant to the planning and execution of January 6th attack on the United States Capitol. For example, Steve Bannon live-streamed his podcast on YouTube in the days before and after January 6, 2021, and live-streams of the attack appeared on YouTube as it was taking place. To this day, YouTube is a platform on which user video spread misinformation about the election. In addition, YouTube took down a video that President Trump posted during the January 6, 2021 attack, and decided to suspend his account on January 12, 2021.
The Select Committee is looking for a variety of information from YouTube including:
- How YouTube “developed, implemented, and reviewed its content moderation, algorithmic promotion, demonetization, and other policies that may have affected the January 6, 2021 events”
- Information to explain the “non-public moderation discussions and policies that led to President Trump’s suspension” or that explain why his account was not was not subject to action before January 6.
- Documents related to YouTube’s policy decisions, particularly its election misinformation and its strikes policy against offending accounts.
Meta is the largest social media company in the world. According to public reports, people used Meta’s platforms in the months and days before January 6, 2021, to share messages of hate, violence, and incitement, to spread misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories around the election, and to coordinate or attempt to coordinate the Stop the Steal movement. Recent public statements from former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen and public reports about documents she disclosed have added to the public’s understanding of Facebook’s research, structure, incentives, actions, successes, and failures.
The Select Committee is looking for a variety of information from Facebook including:
- Why Facebook disbanded its Civic Integrity team “following the November 2020 election and prior to the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.”
- Why Facebook “reduced the application of tools used to restrain the spread of violent content.”
- The “internal and external analyses conducted by the company regarding misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation relating to the 2020 election, efforts to challenge or overturn the election, and the use of Meta by domestic violent extremists to affect the 2020 election.”
Reddit was the host of “r/The_Donald,” a ‘subreddit’ community that grew significantly before migrating off the site to the website TheDonald.win in mid-2020, and which ultimately was a platform on which a significant amount of online discussion and planning by users related to the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol and the constitutional actions of Congress. After years of growth on the site, Reddit decided to restrict some features of the site for the “r/The_Donald” community in 2019 and early 2020, and—ultimately—shut down the subreddit on June 29, 2020. On January 8, 2021, Reddit shut down the largest remaining subreddit dedicated to President Trump (“r/donaldtrump”), apparently for breaking its rules related to violent content.
According to the Committee, “Reddit still has not committed to a thorough review of its records for documents relevant to the Select Committee’s investigation and has refused to produce internal documents to support its conclusory public statements that Reddit played no role in January 6th.”
Twitter’s former CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged last year that Twitter bore some responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6th. Indeed, Twitter subscribers reportedly used the platform for communications regarding the planning and execution of the assault on the United States Capitol, and Twitter was reportedly warned about potential violence being planned on the site in advance of January 6th. Further, high-profile Twitter subscribers used the platform for communications amplifying allegations of election fraud even after the December 14 certification of election results by the states, and theories of election fraud in the weeks leading up to the January 6th attack following the December 14 certification of election results by the states. For example, President Donald Trump on December 19 tweeted “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” and urged his followers to come to Washington to engage in a “wild” protest on January 6, 2021.
The Select Committee is looking for a variety of information from Twitter including:
- Documents the company has not produced for the committee, including “relating to warnings it received regarding the use of the platform to plan or incite violence on January 6th.”
- Any “analyses of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation relating to the 2020 election, efforts to challenge or overturn the election, and the use of Twitter by domestic violent extremists or foreign malign influences to affect the 2020 election.”
- Documents that might “fully explain either its decision to suspend President Trump’s account on January 8, 2021, or any other decisions the company made regarding President Trump’s account relating to the events of January 6th.”
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The Select Committee is mandated to examine “how technology, including online platforms” such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit “may have factored into the motivation, organization, and execution” of the insurrection, according to the legislation that established it.
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.