January 6th has altered the way social media is perceived – but does this mean real change?

A lot seems to have changed in the year since the Capitol building fell prey to violent right-wing extremists who mobilized via social media. But there is still a lengthy road ahead

January 6th has altered the way social media is perceived – but does this mean real change?

Jan 6, 2021; Washington, DC. Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY, via REUTERS

Two days ago, Former US President Donald Trump sent an email to various media outlets. “In light of the total bias and dishonesty of the January 6th Unselect Committee of Democrats, two failed Republicans, and the Fake News Media, I am canceling the January 6th Press Conference at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday,” he wrote.

Of course, he could not tweet this message.

But Trump’s permanent ban from his favorite social media platform, to which he took multiple times a day throughout his presidency a day to fire, insult, threaten, create “alternative facts” (baseless election fraud claims included), and stir general mayhem – still going at it at full force while the Capitol was under siege – was merely the first tremor of the major tectonic shifts which would ripple through the industry over the next year.

10,000 violent posts a day

At least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidential victory and calling for various forms of political violence (including execution) flooded Facebook in the two months between election day and that fateful January 6th of last year. This, according to an investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post.

The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of then-President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term,” says the joint publication.

Sure, Facebook established a special task force (Civic Integrity) designed to monitor and control various groups which might use the platform to incite violence and otherwise interfere in the election process, but it was dissolved shortly after the vote, with no regard as to what might happen until the president-elect becomes the newest resident in 16000 Pennsylvania Avenue. Groups like “Stop the Steal”, which included some 300 thousand members, had plenty of time to prepare.

“They basically said ‘Oh good, we made it through the election, there weren’t riots, we can get rid of Civic Integrity,” said Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen on her already-iconic 60 Minutes interview. “When they got rid of Civic Integrity, it was the moment where I thought ‘I don’t trust that they’re willing to actually invest what needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.”

Extremist voice growing on alternative social media

But it’s not all Facebook and Twitter. In fact, in August the House January 6th Committee demanded records related to the attack from 15 social media companies, including of course all the major ones – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Telegram, Snapchat, Tik-Tok and YouTube, but also the likes of Parler, Gab, 8kun and Zello.

The committee explained that it is seeking information which include “records related to the spread of misinformation, efforts to overturn the 2020 election or prevent the certification of the results, domestic violent extremism, and foreign influence in the 2020 election.”

The Committee was also interested in information regarding policy changes adopted (or unadopted) by social media companies regarding the spread of false information and violent extremism.

As it would appear, the extremist voice on alternative social media is only growing. A new report by the Atlantic Council notes the “great scattering”. As mainstream social media companies have taken action over the past year to restrict their content and activities, online extremists have found outlets across alternative platforms.

Is change for the better really possible?

As of December 2021, law enforcement has charged more than 685 people for crimes committed while participating in the January 6 insurrection, according to the Atlantic Council. In more than 85% of the cases, the government has used evidence collected from social media platforms.

In mid-December, AP reported that over 50 people “have been sentenced for federal crimes related to the insurrection. In at least 28 of the cases, prosecutors factored a defendant’s social media posts into their requests for stricter sentences.”

Yesterday, Reuters reported that Twitter is creating a new team to review the platform for harmful content associated with the Capitol siege and will “watch for risks such as tweets and accounts that incite violence.”  The news agency obtained a statement from a Meta spokesperson who said that “We’re continuing to actively monitor threats on our platform and will respond accordingly.”

But “monitoring” and PC wording aside, how can social media companies and law enforcement agencies really, truly and honestly deal with the endless, ever-growing barrage of fake news, hate speech and incitement for violence on the various online platforms? And is it even possible? Or (to paraphrase Frances Haugen) even desirable?

That remains an open question. 

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