Facebook, Twitter crackdown around Capitol siege is too little, too late

Facebook, Twitter crackdown around Capitol siege is too little, too late
Short Url
Updated 10 January 2021

Facebook, Twitter crackdown around Capitol siege is too little, too late

Facebook, Twitter crackdown around Capitol siege is too little, too late
  • Even after major purges of accounts and groups, it has been easy for the operators to re-emerge with slight tweaks

By the time social media companies took action against users and groups spurring on the siege of Capitol Hill this week, culminating in the suspension of US President Donald Trump’s accounts, it was too little too late.
For weeks, content on Big Tech platforms Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, as well as upstart fringe social networks, foretold the storming of the US 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 depicted Trump as Uncle Sam with text paraphrasing the president: “I want you in Washington DC January 6. It’s going to be WILD.”
After the violence, 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.” 
The slogan refers to pro-Trump followers’ belief that the Nov. 3 election was fraudulent in favor of Democrat Joe Biden, a claim that has been encouraged by Trump without evidence.
Facebook said it “removed content and accounts that violated our policies against inciting violence and dangerous organizations in the lead-up to January 6,” and was continuing to monitor and remove dangerous content.
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.”
On Friday, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account and suspended accounts belonging to vitriolic Trump fans including Ron Watkins, who helped run little-regulated image board 8kun, home of many recent posts calling for violence.
YouTube said it removes content that violates its community guidelines.

‘Like Daesh does it’

Disinformation experts said while big platforms allowed radical racists, violence enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists to amass a large audience, leading influencers learned what they could get away with.
“You end up with a very diluted form of the content on the large platform, and the more radical stuff is elsewhere, like Daesh does it,” said Alex Stamos, the former Facebook chief security officer who runs a Stanford program exposing disinformation.
The mainstream content “is difficult to claim is inappropriate, because it says ‘come to a rally.’ Bring this and bring that, ‘get ready to rumble,’ is on 8kun and Parler, and operational stuff is on Telegram.”
Even after major purges of accounts and groups, it has been easy for the operators to re-emerge with slight tweaks, such as swapping “cue” for “Q,” said Daniel Jones, a former FBI analyst and Senate staffer who leads non-profit research firm Advance Democracy Inc.
On Wednesday, a tweet that turned one of the earliest posts by the anonymous “Q” three years ago into the call to action “My fellow Americans, the Storm is upon us” got 16,000 retweets.
Before Facebook took down its page late on Tuesday, Red-State Secession had urged its nearly 8,000 followers to find the home addresses of officials who “helped steal the election.”
It linked to a website that declared last week a “second American revolution” would start on Jan. 6, and urged supporters to follow its accounts on more permissive social media platforms Gab and Parler “before we get deleted.”
The group said by email that its Facebook page and blog “promote the peaceful separation of blue states and red states” and that Facebook had overreacted.
Far-right groups that appeared at the riot maintain a vigorous online presence on digital platforms such as Parler, Gab, MeWe, Zello and Telegram, and in some cases discussed using overwhelming crowds to enter the Capitol, said Jared Holt, a disinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council.
MeWe said it prohibits “haters, lawbreakers, violence inciters,” and has been taking action on violations around the protest.
Gab CEO Andrew Torba said by email: “None of the platforms you listed, Gab included, are useful for organization of any type.”
Zello, Telegram and Parler did not reply to requests for comment.

Recruitment machine

The selfies snapped on the Senate floor and livestreams broadcast from inside lawmakers’ offices served as marketing to recruit new followers and in some cases earn 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.
The Southern Poverty Law Center documented at least five accounts on blockchain-based video platform DLive that livestreamed Wednesday’s protest, including two accounts belonging to people who participated in the white supremacist-led “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
One of them, a provocateur named Tim Gionet who is known online as Baked Alaska, livestreamed from inside a Capitol office. 
He pulled in at minimum $222 in tips from viewers via DLive during the afternoon, according to the report.
He promoted his content to followers on Instagram and Facebook until the company disabled his accounts on Wednesday.
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.
Gionet did not respond to requests for comment.


Analysis: Does Twitter’s Trump ban expose a dangerous double standard?

Analysis: Does Twitter’s Trump ban expose a dangerous double standard?
Concerns have been raised that Twitter’s move against US President Donald Trump sets a ‘dangerous’ precedent and violates freedom of speech. (File/AFP)
Updated 15 min 37 sec ago

Analysis: Does Twitter’s Trump ban expose a dangerous double standard?

Analysis: Does Twitter’s Trump ban expose a dangerous double standard?
  • Why did the platform act now, and why does it tolerate so many other preachers of hate?

The decision by Twitter to permanently ban US President Donald Trump caused many people in the Arab world to accuse the platform of double standard.

Why, they wonder, did it take so long for action to be taken against him, and why are so many other public figures known for spreading hate and intolerance allowed to continue to tweet freely.
“Throughout history, God has imposed upon them (the Jews) people who would punish them for their corruption,” said Egyptian preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in a fatwa announcement broadcast by Al Jazeera on Jan. 30, 2009.
“The last punishment was that of Hitler … This was a divine punishment for them. Next time, God willing, it will be done at the hands of the faithful believers.”
The Qatar-based scholar has a long history of issuing hate-filled and antisemitic fatwas — yet he continues to enjoy the freedom provided by Twitter, which he joined in May 2011, to spread his objectionable views and ideas to more than 3 million followers.
“This decision (by Twitter to ban Trump) raises questions about the double standards with which these (social media) companies deal,” said veteran journalist and media expert Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy, who until 2011 was head of news with Egypt’s national broadcaster. “And also the extent to which the motives of these companies for their decisions are considered honest motives all the time.
“Trump’s approach, which encourages hate, has not changed for years. These companies did not take a stance on the US president at the time, but have now taken a position (when he is about to leave office).
“There are other personalities, some of them from the Middle East, who have been using hate speech for years and none of the major social media companies have taken action against them.”
Twitter suspended Trump’s account on Jan. 8 in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6. They gave “the risk of further incitement of violence” as the reason for the ban.
“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter rules would potentially result in this very course of action,” the platform said in a blog post, detailing the reasoning behind its decision.
Late last year Twitter updated its rules relating to hateful conduct, saying that it aims to create a more inclusive environment for users. In a blog entry posted on July 9, 2019 and updated on Dec. 2, 2020, the company said: “Our primary focus is on addressing the risks of offline harm, and research shows that dehumanizing language increases that risk.”
However El-Menawy said this might be a case of “too little, too late” for the social media company to be heralded as a champion for standing up to hate speech. The timing of the Trump ban, he says, “is questionable and raises suspicions about the motives.”
Mohammed Najem, executive director of SMEX, a digital-rights organization focusing on Arabic-speaking countries, echoed El-Menawy’s concerns.
“It shows that the companies don’t really know what they are doing when it comes to content moderation,” he said.
“For years many civil-society groups, in the US and around the globe, have been asking the right questions about content moderation but they were mostly ignored, or not given enough attention or acted upon by the tech companies. They have a lot of work to do (on this issue) and they need to listen to civil-society groups.”
Throughout his term as president, Trump has courted controversy with his Twitter activity. Supporters, opponents and journalists worldwide closely monitor his personal account on the platform, more so than the official account of the presidency (@POTUS), for a glimpse into his mind and motives.
As Brian L. Ott and Greg Dickinson, authors of the book “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage,” wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today: “Historically, Twitter has been reluctant to hold Trump responsible for his speech, likely because he was their most notorious user.” They added: “Simply put, Trump was good for business.”
Trump — who was impeached on Wednesday on charges of “incitement of insurrection,” making him the first US president to be impeached twice — indeed was one of Twitter’s top users. He had nearly 89 million followers, and his posts had been retweeted 389,842,552 times and liked 1,659,180,779 times since he opened his account on March 18, 2009. He was mentioned in 16 million tweets on the day of the Capitol siege, and 17 million on the day after.
While Twitter has special rules that apply to the accounts of world leaders, it insists they are not immune to its enforcement policies. Yet some continue to post comment considered objectionable by many.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for example, cannot be compared to President Trump in terms of number of followers or reach on Twitter, but his activity on the platform follows a similarly dangerous pattern. Just last week, the Iranian leader posted false claims across his multiple accounts — he has ones in English, Spanish, Farsi, Arabic and Russian — that COVID-19 vaccines developed in US and UK are “completely untrustworthy,” France has “HIV-tainted blood supplies,” and it is “not unlikely that they (Western countries) would want to contaminate other nations.”
This follows years of similarly dangerous and damaging tweets in which Khamenei incited violence against other nations. In May 2020, for example, he said that Iran will “support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime.”

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has a long history of issuing hate-filled fatwas — yet he continues to enjoy the freedom provided by Twitter, which he joined in May 2011, to spread his objectionable views and ideas to more than 3 million followers. (File/AFP)

Other accounts, such as those of Al-Qaradawi and Qais Al-Khazali — both of whom have featured in the Preachers of Hate series published by Arab News — also remain active. Al-Khazali, from Iraq, was designated as a global terrorist by the US State Department in January last year.
The issue is not unique to accounts originating in the Arab world. In India, for example, social-media platforms, including Facebook, have been criticized for continuing to allow users to spread hate speech.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric from Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, is blamed for contributing to a rise in attacks against the minority Muslim community across the country, for example.
There are many accounts on Twitter and other social-media platforms that have prompted similar concerns. Observers warn that without better controls and moderation of objectionable content, Twitter runs the risk that its image as a promoter of free speech will be damaged and, through inactivity, it will come to be viewed as a promoter of hate speech.
Twitter did not respond to requests from Arab News for comment.