In the seventh in a series of hearings to share the evidence it has acquired, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated how a single tweet from former President Donald Trump– sent in the early morning hours of December 19, 2020– galvanized his supporters to travel to Washington DC on January 6, 2021, and for a significant subset, to prepare for violence.
And, the Committee shared testimony from an anonymous Twitter whistleblower, “an employee who was on the team responsible for platform and content moderation policies on Twitter throughout 2020 and 2021.” The testimony raises important questions that the social media company should answer, and underscores broader questions about the role of Silicon Valley in the era of the Big Lie.
“Fucking A, this is happening.”
In his segment of the hearing, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-MD, explained that “President Trump’s tweet drew tens of thousands of Americans to Washington to form the angry crowd that would be transformed on January the 6th into a violent mob,” said Raskin. He proceeded to play video of testimony from Dr. Donell Harvin, who at the time of the attack on the Capitol was the chief of Homeland Security and intelligence for Washington DC. Harvin told the committee that Trump’s tweet united violent groups who were typically not aligned. “When you have armed militia collaborating with white supremacy groups collaborating with conspiracy theory groups online all toward a common goal, you start seeing what we call in, you know, terrorism, a blended ideology. And that’s a very, very bad sign,” said Harvin.
The Committee underscored how the tweet kicked off activity in other online forums. Ron Watkins, the owner of the far-right message board and QAnon birthplace 8kun, said the tweet inspired him to travel to the Capitol. And Jody Williams, founder of TheDonald[.]win, a community of extremist Trump supporters, told the Committee that Trump’s tweet sparked a wave of planning among his users. “On that site, many shared plans and violent threats,” Raskin noted.
There is no question that the December 19 tweet served as a catalyst for thousands of people to align and coordinate their actions. Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump analyzed thousands of pages of charging documents and plea agreements for January 6 defendants, and found the prevalence of references to the date serve as “a measure of the role Dec. 19 played as something of a tipping point.” But when did Twitter recognize the danger?
“… but Twitter chose not to act.”
A key question for Twitter is when it recognized the potential for violence, and what it did with that information. An anonymous whistleblower, identified by Raskin as a former employee of the company who was “responsible for platform and content moderation policies on Twitter throughout 2020 and 2021,” suggested that, in fact, there were those in the company raising alarms about the potential for Trump to incite violence well before January 6, after Trump appeared to acknowledge the Proud Boys during a September 2020 debate with then candidate Joe Biden.
UNKNOWN: My concern was that the former president, for seemingly the first time, was speaking directly to extremist organizations and giving them directives. We had not seen that sort of direct communication before, and that concerned me.
Q: So, just to clarify further, you were worried, others at Twitter were worried, that the president might use your platform to speak directly to folks who might be incited to violence?
UNKNOWN: Yes. I believe that Twitter relished in the knowledge that they were also the favorite and most used service of the former president, and enjoyed having that sort of power within the social media ecosystem.
Q: If President Trump were anyone else, would it have taken until January 2021 for him to be suspended?
UKNOWN: Absolutely not. If Donald — if former President Donald Trump were any other user on Twitter, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago.
Raskin said that “the employee testified that Twitter considered adopting a stricter content moderation policy after President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand back and stand by from the lectern at the September 29th presidential debate, but Twitter chose not to act.” Then came the December 19th tweet.
UNKNOWN: It was — it felt as if — if a mob was being organized, and they were gathering together their weaponry and their logic and their reasoning behind why they were prepared to fight. Prior to December 19th, again, it was — it was vague. It was — it was nonspecific but very clear that individuals were ready, willing, and able to take up arms.
After this tweet on December 19th, again, it became clear not only were these individuals ready and willing, but the leader of their cause was asking them to join him in this cause and in fighting for this cause in DC on January 6th as well. I will also say what shocked me was the responses to these tweets, right?
So, these were — a lot of the locked and loaded, stand back, stand by, those tweets were in response to Donald Trump saying things like this, right? So, there would be a response that said big protest in DC on January 6th, be there, be wild, and someone would respond and say I’m locked and loaded and ready for civil war part two, right?
I very much believe that Donald Trump posting this tweet on December 19th was essentially staking flag in DC on January 6th for his supporters to come and rally.
Q: And you were concerned about the potential for this gathering becoming violent?
By January 5th, the whistleblower anticipated certain violence the following day.
Q: What was your — your gut feeling on the night of January 5th?
UNKNOWN: I believe I sent a Slack message to someone that said something along the lines of when people are shooting each other tomorrow, I will try and rest in the knowledge that we tried. And so, I went to — I don’t know that I slept that night, to be honest with you. I — I was on pins and needles because, again, for — for months I had been begging and anticipating and attempting to raise the reality that if nothing — if we made no intervention into what I saw occurring, people were going to die. And on January 5th, I realized no intervention was coming. No — there — and even as — as hard as I had tried to create one or implement one, there was nothing and we were — we were at the whims and the mercy of a violent crowd that was locked and loaded.
Q: And just for the record, this was content that was echoing statements by the former president, but also Proud Boys and other known violent extremist groups?
Twitter, for its part, seems to acknowledge the singular role it played in the run up to January 6, even if it believes it was proactive in its posture.
“We are clear-eyed about our role in the broader information ecosystem in regards to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, and while we continue to examine how we can improve moving forward, the fact remains that we took unprecedented steps and invested significant resources to prepare for and respond to the threats that emerged during the 2020 US election,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement shared with the Washington Post after the hearing. In testimony to the House Energy & Commerce Committee last year, then-CEO Jack Dorsey was the only one of the tech CEOs to affirm that his platform bore some responsibility for what happened at the Capitol.
Questions for Twitter, Questions for Silicon Valley
What could Twitter have done differently? What could social media firms more generally, including Facebook and YouTube, have done differently in the post-election period? These questions are urgent, given the durability of the Big Lie.
There is one practical question to which the public deserves an answer. Why did Twitter choose not to share information with law enforcement regarding violent threats on its platform? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report that while Twitter had been in touch with law enforcement officials in the post-election period, “Twitter officials stated that the platform did not share information with federal agencies related to January 6,” as Facebook and Parler are understood to have done. Did Twitter have specific, actionable information that it chose not to share?
The broader questions about what to do about false election claims and potential incitement to violence on social media are much more difficult to answer. In many ways, the testimony of the Twitter whistleblower is congruent with the revelations regarding Facebook’s handling of the post-election period that emerged in the documents leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Inside both companies, there were those keenly aware that the platforms could be used by Trump to incite violence, and those disappointed with the failure to take action at earlier junctures, such as Trump’s incitements following the George Floyd protests.
And while some measures were put in place at the major platforms to address false claims about the election, it wasn’t enough to prevent thousands of individuals embracing the Big Lie, especially since it came directly from the president. Facebook recognized this in its own debrief on the Stop the Steal movement, and the Twitter whistleblower appears to acknowledge it as well. Stephen Ayres, a Trump supporter charged for entering the Capitol on January 6, explained to the Committee that his behavior was influenced by his social media environment.
“For me, for me personally, you know — I was, you know, pretty hardcore into the social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,” said Ayres. “I followed, you know, President Trump, you know, on all the websites, you know. He basically put out, you know, come to the Stop the Steal rally, you know, and I felt like I needed to be down here.”
A year and a half after the bloody insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, what is Silicon Valley prepared to do to help avoid more men and women such as Mr. Ayres from taking criminal actions based on false information? What are its responsibilities, now that its role is so clear? How must social media platforms– purportedly champions of free expression– comport themselves in democracies on the brink, where disinformation is abundant? These are not unanswerable questions, but they are as yet unanswered.
It is time for Silicon Valley companies to answer them, and to get specific. For instance, are the major tech platforms prepared and appropriately staffed to contend with a potential rash of false claims related to the 2022 election cycle, at the federal, state and local level? The Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of academic, civil society and private sector groups that monitored misinformation in the 2020 election, specifically warned about “state-level premature claims of victory.”
And, are the major tech platforms taking a strong enough stance against repeat spreaders and enforcing their policies effectively? There is substantial evidence that while appropriate civic integrity policies may be in place, social media firms simply don’t have the systems in place and haven’t made the investments necessary to truly enforce them.
History May Repeat Itself– in the U.S., in Brazil, or Elsewhere
The January 6 Committee hearings have emphasized repeatedly that the danger of the Big Lie is persistent. But while the answers to these questions matter to future election cycles in the United States, the implications are global. In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsanaro appears to have adopted the Trump playbook, laying “the groundwork for rejecting an impending electoral loss” in that country’s upcoming election. Other elections are or have recently been in similar jeopardy.
“The creation of the Internet and social media has given today’s tyrants tools of propaganda and disinformation that yesterday’s despots could only have dreamed of,” said Rep. Raskin. Twitter, and Silicon Valley more generally, should reflect on Raskin’s statement, and on the fears of tech employees willing to blow the whistle. It is time for radical transparency, and for these firms to double down on the investment and coordination necessary to be able to convincingly say they have done all they could to protect democracy, here and abroad. “American democracy,” said Rep. Raskin at today’s hearing, “is a precious inheritance, something rare in the history of the world and even on earth today.” Indeed, democracy faces grave threats across the globe- and on balance, it is unclear whether social media platforms are willing to do what is necessary to come to its aid.
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.