In a hearing on the January 6 insurrection hosted by the House Oversight & Reform Committee, Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said that “the Committee has obtained documents showing that the social media company Parler sent the FBI evidence of planned violence in Washington DC on January 6. Parler referred this content to the FBI for investigation over 50 times, and according to the company ‘even alerted law enforcement to specific threats of violence being planned at the Capitol.'”
It was the first confirmation that a social media platform provided the FBI with specific material related to plans by supporters of former President Donald Trump to attack the US Capitol before January 6. FBI Director Christopher Wray previously did not offer a specific answer as to whether the FBI received specific threats from social media companies in prior testimony when pressed on the matter by Representative Eric Swalwell, D-CA15, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week.
Chairwoman Maloney referenced specific quotes from emails shared by Parler executives with the FBI with verbatims from Parler posts . “This is not a rally and it’s no longer a protest. This is a final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill,” said one. “Everyone is coming with weapons,” said another.
Wray said he was unaware of these communications, and that he was unaware that Parler had ever contacted his office before January 6. But, he said social media information was shared in advance of January 6 with relevant offices. “Raw, unverified information, as unfortunately so much of the information these days is on social media, was quickly passed to all of our partners in three different ways almost immediately.” He referred to “a dozen or so” intelligence products raising concerns about domestic violent extremism related to the election and through the inauguration.
Known as a social media alternative for people with right wing politics, researchers studying Parler prior to its removal from the Amazon servers and the Google and Apple app stores after the attacks on January 6 described its contents as generally “toxic, racist and hateful and can be overall disturbing.” Parler was recently reinstated on the Apple app store after addressing questions about its methods for filtering objectionable content to report offensive content and block abusive users. The site is backed by Rebekah Mercer, a major donor to Donald Trump.
The hearing, similar to earlier hearings at which the FBI Director has testified this year, dealt with questions related to monitoring social media and how that information is filtered to law enforcement and security agencies.
Representative Mark DeSaulnier, D-CA11, asked Director Wray about why the sheer volume of worrisome content ahead of January 6 did not prompt him to be more personally concerned about what might transpire that day. He responded generally that “social media is one of the biggest challenges we face in law enforcement.” He said the FBI needs better human sources to discern what messages matter and which do not, better analytic tools to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” and new ways to deal with “the issue of encryption.” “We’ve got to figure out a way to get into those communications,” said Wray.
“If the policies should be changed to reflect that, that might be one of the important lessons learned coming out of this whole experience,” Wray said.
Later in the hearing, Representative Rashida Tlaib, D-MI13, pointed to the possibility that new intelligence or surveillance powers may be used inordinately against minorities, who have born the brunt of law enforcement abuses in the United States.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY14 asked whether the FBI typically incorporates insights from social media into its investigation of violent extremism. Wray said no. “What we can’t do on social media is, without proper predication and an authorized purpose, is just monitor ‘just in case’ on social media.” Ocasio-Cortez asked Wray about statements he made indicating he was aware of ‘online chatter’ about the possibility of violence on January 6, and whether the issue was more of a failure to acquire intelligence or to a failure to act on intelligence it had. Wray again referred to the problem of parsing the high volume of social media information.
“These white nationalists literally planned this insurrection in plain sight,” said Representative Jimmy Gomez, D-CA34. He said his constituents asked him about the potential for violence ahead of January 6, because of what they were reading about it online. “The FBI claims it didn’t produce a threat assessment over 1st Amendment concerns. Do you consider threats against elected officials and an assault on the Capitol to be free speech?”
Wray did not answer that question.
“This attack was planned in public,” said Chairwoman Maloney. “But today’s hearing made clear that the nation’s law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies failed to do their jobs to protect our nation’s Capitol. FBI Director Wray admitted today that he was unaware of the more than 50 tips from social media site Parler prior to January 6 warning of violence, including one user posting that stated, ‘don’t be surprised if we take the Capitol building!’ This was a massive intelligence failure by the FBI, plain and simple,” she said.
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.