Analysis: Facebook and Twitter crackdown around Capitol siege is too little, too late

PALO ALTO/NEW YORK (Reuters) – By the time social media giants took action against users and groups spurring on the siege of Capitol Hill this week, culminating in the suspension of U.S. President Donald Trump’s accounts, it was too little too late.

FILE PHOTO: Protesters wave American and Confederate flags during clashes with Capitol police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

For weeks, content on big tech platforms like Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s YouTube as well as upstart fringe social networks foretold the storming of the U.S Capitol on Wednesday that led to five deaths.

In one Facebook post identified by online advocacy group Avaaz, an illustration of Trump holding a machine gun in front of the White House is accompanied by the words “Come and Take it.” Another, taken down mid-Friday, depicted Trump as Uncle Sam text paraphrasing the president: “I want you in Washington DC January 6. It’s going to be WILD.”

After the unrest, right-wing social users on smaller platforms were retelling the story with videos from the siege to bigger, new audiences, while the major sites showed users sharing false claims about the unrest and groups dedicated to “Stop the Steal.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. The company has said it is “actively searching for and removing” content supportive of the siege.

A Twitter spokeswoman said the company had “taken enforcement action on thousands of accounts that were attempting to undermine the public conversation and cause real-world harm.”

As late as Tuesday, Red-State Secession, a Facebook page for a group advocating for “conservative states” to secede from the United States, urged its nearly 8,000 followers to find the home addresses and office parking spots of officials who “helped steal the election.”

Its website, whose link could be found on its Facebook page, warned last week that the “second American revolution” would start on Jan. 6, when “patriots” would “finally show that they are willing to risk their own comfort to punish their enemies.”

In its Facebook page bio, the group urged supporters to follow its accounts on smaller, more permissive social-media platforms Gab and Parler “before we get deleted.” Facebook removed the group this week.

Far-right groups that appeared at the riot maintain a vigorous online presence on “alternative” digital platforms like Parler, Gab, MeWe, Zello, and Telegram, where they publicized the protest for weeks and in some cases specifically discussed using overwhelming crowds to enter the Capitol, said Jared Holt, a disinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council.

MeWe said “haters” and “violence inciters” were not welcome on its platform, but declined to disclose actions it had taken around the protest this week.

In an email, Gab’s CEO Andrew Torba said “None of the platforms you listed, Gab included, are useful for organization of any type. Facebook had dedicated groups and events pages for this event, yet alt-tech sites are being baselessly blamed for a peaceful protest? Give me a break.”

Zello, Telegram and Parler did not reply to requests for comment.


The selfies snapped on the Senate floor and livestreams broadcast from inside lawmakers’ hastily abandoned offices served as marketing content to recruit new followers and in some cases make money.

“While extremists on the ground livestreamed and bragged about the chaos they created minute-to-minute, far-right online communities aggregated their content and cheered on their efforts,” said Holt.

Traffic on some far-right platforms became so overwhelming that they began to glitch, he said.

According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, downloads of Parler and DLive rose after Wednesday, although their numbers remain minute in comparison to mainstream platforms.

The Southern Poverty Law Center documented at least five accounts on blockchain-based video platform DLive that livestreamed Wednesday’s protest, including two who participated in the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

One of them, a provocateur named Tim Gionet who goes by the moniker Baked Alaska, livestreamed from inside a Capitol office. He pulled in at minimum $222 in tips from viewers via DLive during the afternoon’s events, according to the report.

He promoted his content to followers on Instagram and Facebook, until the company disabled his accounts on XXXX.

Another, Nick Fuentes, continues to maintain a verified Twitter account, where he regularly promotes his accounts on Parler, has earned $43,822.86 on DLive in the last two months of 2020 while promoting Stop the Steal content, SPLC said.

Megan Squire, an Elon University scholar who performed the calculations for SPLC, said de-platforming of extremists by mainstream social networks is “always followed by a backlash,” including reconstitution on smaller networks.

But by reducing broad viewership, she said, the disruption still has an impact.

DLive said on Thursday it had suspended three accounts, banned two others and permanently removed over 100 broadcasts. Donations and paid subscriptions will be refunded, it added.

Fuentes and Gionet did not respond to requests for comment.

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