The House select committee on January 6 drove many a news cycle over the summer, as its televised hearings documented the imminent threat that hard-right political initiatives pose to American democracy. But the committee’s final report was strikingly silent on the role of the news itself in fomenting the insurrection at the US Capitol—especially as that news was filtered, customized, and willfully distorted by social media platforms catering to the militant wing of the Trumpian right.
In a recent account of the committee’s inner workings, The Washington Post reports that this was not an incidental omission: In fact, the panel had drafted a 122-page memo on the outsize role social media played in the run-up to the attack on the US Capitol, but ultimately elected to omit its findings from the final report. That decision appears to have been more a political call than an editorial one. Some committee insiders told the Post that Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, ranking GOP committee member, wanted the committee’s public record to focus chiefly on the role of President Donald Trump in spurring the uprising. Other committee staffers contend that the social media chapter was excised at the behest of Representative Zoe Logren, who has several major tech companies in her Northern California district. (Lofgren denies that she lobbied the committee in this vein, saying that “the social media findings were included into the other parts of the report and the appendixes, a decision made by the Chairman in consultation with the Committee.”)
However one wants to parse such internecine scrums within the panel, it’s abundantly clear that the January 6 report gives intensive treatment to Trump’s pivotal role in the insurrection—and mostly confines the discussion of the social mediasphere to a rushed “Role of the Media” entry at the end of its list of policy recommendations, saying “congressional committees of jurisdiction should continue to evaluate policies of media companies that have the effect of radicalizing their consumers, including by provoking people to attack their own country.”
That sounds more like a prayer—or less generously, a shrug—than an action plan, and stands out in rather stark relief to the details of the omitted social media memo, as broken down by Post reporters Cat Zakrzewski, Cristiano Lima, and Drew Harwell. “Congressional investigators,” they write, “found evidence that tech platforms—especially Twitter—failed to heed their own employees’ warnings about violent rhetoric on their sites and bent their rules to avoid penalizing conservatives, particularly then-President Trump, out of fear of reprisals.” This state of affairs—bespeaking a cowed content moderation regime afraid to uphold standards in the face of vicious blowback campaigns—also gives the lie to the hoary right-wing plaint of rampant liberal bias among the lords of social media. “The transcripts indicate the reverse,” the Post reporters drily note, “with former Twitter employees describing how the company gave Trump special treatment.”
When the slanderous and racist right-wing clamor over Trump’s 2020 “stolen election” narrative built to its violent crescendo, advocates for more energetic content moderation at Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms were left in the role of helpless and anguished bystanders. Anika Collier Navaroli, a senior member of Twitter’s safety policy team, described seeing the #ExecuteMikePence hashtag blow up on the site on January 6, and then having to laboriously enter the phrase into the site’s search function at each mention, “manually copying each tweet’s details into an internal flagging tool and returning to the timeline as more tweets poured in.” (Twitter’s senior executives, meanwhile, shrugged off the prospect of violence at Trump’s January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, as a video leaked to Rolling Stone shows in grim detail.)
This sorcerer’s apprentice image is a good summation of the impossible task of content moderation in today’s top-heavy social media landscape. “This just proves [Techdirt writer] Mike Masnick’s theorem that content moderation at scale is impossible,” says Jeff Jarvis, professor at CUNY’s Newmark School of Journalism. Jarvis, a longtime champion of Internet expression, concedes that there’s a place for the sort of deliberation that might have derailed some of the more incendiary social media mentions leading up to the January 6 attack. “An important component of speech is choice,” he says, “the decision of what to carry or not to carry is the platform’s, and that needs protection. That’s under assault now in places like Texas and Florida, where they have new laws compelling platforms to carry all speech. Compelled speech is not free speech.”
At the same time, Jarvis argues that the committee’s memo doesn’t appear to engage with the underlying issue of First Amendment suppression. “Look, Elon Musk is not a free speech absolutist and cancel culture is bullshit,” he says. “I’m all for moderators getting rid of assholes, but not under government compulsion.” Jarvis suggests that the critique of social media as an engine of mass hate is mis-specified, citing research by Danish media scholar Petter Tornberg. “The Internet doesn’t teach people to hate,” Jarvis says. “We actually are living in bubbles offline, in real life. The Internet punctures that by exposing people to other kinds of speech. But it turns out that people don’t necessarily like that diversity—especially white people.”
It’s true that racism and two-minute hates are not a Net innovation. Still, an accelerationist effect is undeniable, as we are now seeing in real time on Twitter, with Musk gleefully dismantling content moderation protocols and cashiering associated staff. Indeed, news of the January 6 committee’s social media dropped just as Trump’s own pending return to Twitter, and possibly Facebook, was announced. This move will be a stress test for the now greatly weakened practice of responsible content moderation on Twitter. It also means we will likely face once more the same market synergies that hampered the effective and consistent content standards on the old Twitter platform: Because Trump is such a powerful and outsize presence, he’s given kid-glove deference.
“I get frustrated because I’ve been talking for years about each of the major areas the draft report points to—the VIP treatment of Trump, and the inability of Twitter and other companies to apply rules equally, ” says Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights for the media-and-democracy advocacy group Free Press. “Even among other world leaders, Trump got deeply unequal treatment.” And with Musk’s revenue-starved Twitter again joining forces with the lying demagogue behind January 6, the democracy’s exceedingly fragile social media profile seems due for serious backsliding. “Trump has a long record on social media platforms of fomenting violence, and bringing out his base to commit acts of violence and hate,” she says. “That hate has not gone away, and his return will make it worse.”
What gives the Trump movement such a powerful online foothold, Benavidez says, is the fearsome opacity of the social media industry’s business model. “Social media companies have created a patchwork of policies that fail to clearly state what their commitments are, or what their announcements to users or policy updates are. It’s become almost impossible to assess from the outside what they’re doing to protect users…. This labyrinth of commitments is part of their reckless disregard.”
If social media giants deliberately shun accountability and transparency while rendering the basic operations of content moderation unworkable, that would all seem to argue for a robust campaign to break them up into more manageable, competitive, and accountable purveyors of public discourse. Jarvis claims that “there’s a reflexive ire about everything having to do with the platforms and Trump,” but also acknowledges that the top-heavy digital economy is vulnerable to serious abuses: “Even at Twitter, it was too centralized—too vulnerable to central control, as we’re now seeing with asshole Musk.”
Jarvis has lately been promoting broad investment in Mastodon as an alternative to Musk’s toxic reign, and to preserve a greater quotient of user choice in a more widely distributed model of online speech. But the challenge here is steep: The great devil’s trick of the big tech platforms is to continue packaging market prostration as a species of liberation. Just yesterday, Elon Musk was again in rudderless outrage mode, tweeting that “media want to control what you know” and that “citizen journalism is essential”—rich sentiments indeed from an enthusiastic suppressor of journalists’ accounts and champion of unhinged right-wing conspiracy theories about right-wing-perpetrated violence. In other words, whenever Donald Trump makes his debut in the house of Musk, he’s sure to feel right at home.