Social media's role in Jan. 6 was left out of the final report
Dave Davies |
Thursday, January 26, 2023
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Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell says the unpublished report shows that tech companies didn't respond to employees' warnings about violent rhetoric on their platforms.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Meta, the owners of Facebook and Instagram, announced Wednesday that both platforms will restore the accounts of former President Donald Trump, ending a two-year suspension that began after the assault on the U.S. Capitol in 2021. The congressional committee that investigated the January 6 riot spent considerable effort looking into the role of social media in assembling the mob and fueling the violence. But very little of their evidence and findings made it into the committee's 800-page final report.
Our guest today, Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell, is part of a team of reporters who brought those findings into the public sphere. They wrote an article about a 122-page memo investigators circulated among the committee based on their interviews with employees of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other tech platforms as well as other research. They found that tech companies failed to act on their own employees' warnings about violent rhetoric growing on their platforms in part out of reluctance to penalize conservatives, particularly then-President Trump. Drew Harwell is a technology reporter for the Post. He was part of an international reporting team that won a George Polk Award in 2021. Before he joined the Post in 2014, he worked for the Tampa Bay Times.
Drew Harwell, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
DREW HARWELL: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Let's first just begin with an overall look at this. Was looking into social media part of the original purpose of the January 6 Committee?
HARWELL: I don't think so. You know, the first mission was understanding what happened with Donald Trump on January 6 that led to all of this violence, that led to the chaos that really sort of shook democracy in the country and was focused at the Capitol. So it started with one man, really.
But you don't have to go that far from that central point to see how pivotal social media was in this entire episode not just in the weeks before January 6, when a huge amount of pro-Trump supporters were sort of rallying to descend on the Capitol, strategizing over where to bring guns and talking about how the election was stolen falsely, but on the day of the riots, when Donald Trump was effectively egging people on who were already sort of on the Capitol grounds, breaking windows, and when Twitter was consumed with these tweets saying, you know, #hangMikePence and the companies were doing very little. So when the committee started out, it was very Trump-focused. But very quickly, they realized, if we're not focusing on social media, we're missing a big part of the story.
DAVIES: Right. And this is not a new subject to you. And you have been following this for a long time. And you wrote right - like, a couple of days before the January 6 assault about the violent messages that were being displayed on a lot of these sites.
HARWELL: Yeah, we had a story on January 5 that was all about just the volume of rage you could see on these sites. It was not hidden at all. It was very overt. It was very direct. It was, you know, maps of the U.S. Capitol. It was bridges into D.C., where people suspected there would be police checkpoints. It was strategies on how to sneak firearms into D.C., where they are banned. It was really a road map for literally what we saw happen on January 6. And we had been following disinformation around the election for months. And you could tell that on that day, it had really reached a fever pitch. I mean, there was clear mobilization.
And so the question at the time was, what's going on with these companies that we can see this in plain sight? Shouldn't there be something more robust to tackle these very direct calls for violence and threats and lies about the election being stolen? And at the moment, we didn't really know how bad it was inside of these companies. But, you know, now we get a sense of there was a real, clear failure here - not just political, but from these companies that really run the backbone of how we all communicate with each other.
DAVIES: In a general way, how much effort went into looking into the role of social media companies by the staff of the January 6 Committee? I mean, do you have any general sense of - I don't know - how many interviews, what kind of documents? How much effort went into looking into this?
HARWELL: A lot. I mean, in the committee, there were multiple teams approaching this question from different angles. There was a - specifically a purple team that focused on social media and its role in the violence. And they were experts, political staffers, smart people who were part of this committee. And they sifted through tens of thousands of documents from more than a dozen of these big tech companies. They interviewed executives, former employees. They assessed thousands of Twitter messages from Trump and his supporters and many other people. They had subpoena power, so they could really get information.
I mean, they - we have rarely seen a federal body with this kind of people power and resources look into social media. And, you know, you understand why because this was a massive event in American history. And so when they started out, they really had a big concentration of power here looking at this problem. And you could see that in this hundred-page memo, they really focused on this problem very, very specifically and very concretely. And they had a lot of material to back it up.
DAVIES: Right. Which raises another question - why didn't this get more attention in the final report?
HARWELL: Yeah, so that was what we were really kind of interested in. When the final report came out late last year, the material that the purple team had uncovered was almost totally absent. You know, there was this 800-page final report that really didn't dig into social media as an entity in this problem. It was very focused on Trump and his orbit, which were important. But the purple team was dismayed at how much was left on the cutting room floor. And so that was kind of what we wanted to find out when we did our reporting.
And from, you know, a number of interviews with people who were sort of close to this process and understood, their takeaway was that some of this was shaped by political sensibilities, right? You had people on this committee who were reluctant to make this a battle with the tech companies. They didn't want to get in this tit for tat with these very important American firms. And some of those people were congresspeople with jurisdictions in California close to Silicon Valley. So that was a factor of it. There was also some worry from these committee members that they didn't want to distract from Trump. They wanted to keep this really tightly focused on Trump because they worried about the message getting diluted.
But, you know, one other factor in this was that focusing too much on social media cast an inconvenient glimpse at not just far-right QAnon people, who were very conspiratorial, but also the Republican Party itself and its role in tolerating this kind of chatter online from Trump and Americans at large. So there was a worry that, you know, digging in too much on these issues was going to reflect poorly on, you know, Republicans as a party. And so the result of that was the report ended up being a bit watered down. And a lot of this incisive material about social media, which is really important in everybody's lives not just on this day but every day, just was left out.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. On that particular point, I do recall, you know, the co-chair, Liz Cheney, the Republican, sharply condemning her Republican colleagues who, as she put it, were defending the indefensible. You think there was still some sensitivity on not holding Republicans to account for their complicity in the social media end of this?
HARWELL: That was what our interviews suggested, right? I mean, Representative Cheney - she was very much supported by people on this committee for a long time because she was really driving the investigation in a strong way. But by the end of the committee, when it was really getting down into the final results, there was frustration from people in this process who felt like she was overly focused on just one man, just Trump, and sort of leaving out all of the concentric circles of fault and failure here that kind of helped this insurrection come to life.
So there was a sort of philosophical difference with that. But there were also - more specifically when it came to the tech issue, there was a feeling around co-chair Cheney that she wasn't signing off on these subpoenas to more tech employees that could have allowed them to dig deeper into the tech company's role because, again, of that focus on Trump and, again, of that worry that expanding the purview of this investigation would sort of get away from Trump and start focusing on, you know, a bigger pool of Republicans. And that would, you know, shine poorly on her party.
DAVIES: We should just note before we look at the details of what they found that some areas which were not included in the main body of the report were covered somewhat extensively in appendices, you know, particularly the Trump finances and the law enforcement response or preparation for January 6. But the tech stuff didn't even get that level of attention.
HARWELL: Yeah, that's right. And so, you know, the tech stuff was effectively an asterisk or a footnote. And yet, you know, the feeling from the people who had investigated was that social media and the role of the internet was right at the heart of this issue. I mean, it was the reason why former President Trump was able to get so much attention and was able to feed this lie that ended up becoming this terrible moment in the Capitol. So they felt like it was a lost opportunity to pretend that social media was not a more important piece of this than it really was.
DAVIES: You know, I'm not sure how much you can tell us about the circumstances under which you and your colleagues got this memo, which was a draft document within the committee. But I'm wondering, did members of the committee want this to be made public, or are they unhappy that it's gotten into the public discourse?
HARWELL: Yeah. So I'll say, like, we didn't start this specific reporting knowing that there was a memo that we wanted to highlight. Really, we just wanted to understand what happened in this final report. We had known that social media was a big target of the investigation, and we saw that, clearly, it was absent, effectively, from the bigger package of takeaways. So that was our initial driving force. But from interviewing a lot of people who are a part of this process, it became clear that there was a real ongoing debate and a real frustration from people inside these internal committee teams that the final report was not shaping up how they expected. I mean, these were people who expected for months that their efforts would be taken seriously, that the final report would really dig deep on social media and really shine light on these issues that people had been wondering about.
And so in the course of our reporting, when we found out about this memo from talking to some of the lawmakers in Maine, there were some people who felt like, let's let the final report stand for itself. Let's have a unified voice in this. But there were people on the committee system, too, who felt like, if we've done this work, if we've talked to these people who stuck their neck out for us and if we went through this process using public resources, why leave this in the back room? Why not share this publicly? That was why we ended up seeing that memo. And seeing those findings in there and seeing how eye-opening a lot of them were and the fact that they were not sort of included in this final package summing up the investigation really sort of drove home how much agony had gone into this and how people were still sort of debating about how this process should go.
DAVIES: Well, I want to get into what some of the investigators for the committee found. First, we need to take a break. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Drew Harwell. He's a reporter with The Washington Post. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking with Drew Harwell. He's a technology reporter with The Washington Post. He was part of a team that recently wrote about investigative material developed by the staff of the January 6 committee that didn't make it into the committee's final report dealing with how social media platforms failed to address growing online extremism before the January 6 assault.
You know, it's interesting. There was some mention in the public hearings of the committee in July of Twitter. They played testimony from a former Twitter employee saying that the platform had given Donald Trump special treatment. The employee was anonymous at the time. It was audio, not video, and in fact, the voice was distorted to protect the employee's identity. You later interviewed this employee on the record, right? You want to tell us a bit about her?
HARWELL: Yeah, that's right. Her name is Anika Collier Navaroli. She worked for Twitter for several years, including on the day of January 6 and before. And her role was as a legal expert on the safety policy team helping Twitter craft rules for how to approach content, protect the free speech of what people were talking about, but also take down calls to violence, set up clear red lines against extremism, and just play this kind of middle role of trying to protect the platform. So she had a really interesting view on this, and, you know, she had seen the company approach geopolitical issues all the time, right? Riots and political unrest. How do we approach this? How do we allow - what do we allow in terms of protest language that doesn't go too far over the edge?
So she was cognizant of these things and her feeling as the election became this moment where Trump was saying that the vote had been stolen - she had been seeing Twitter really erupt with a lot of people kind of mobilizing their messaging, going from just sort of vague anger to real clear directions of where they were going to go, what they were going to do, and how much they felt like Donald Trump was talking to them. You know, this whole stand by, you know, call that he gave for the Proud Boys. So, you know, she, inside the company, was pushing them - and not just her, but others, too, pushing the company to enact some new rules that would just take a tougher stance on this. One of these was a policy - she called it coded incitement to violence. So incitement to violence is not allowed on Twitter, but you can sort of code it a little bit - right? - and this is what people were doing. They were saying, I'm locked and loaded, but not specifically say where they were going. And yet, you know, by the context of it, it was pretty clear.
So she could see there was starting to be more talk of bringing guns, more talk of really sowing this anger against the federal government, and she was pushing the company to do more. And, you know, what she told the committee, and what others ended up telling the committee as well, was that Twitter was really resistant to any kind of rule that could have helped on January 6th. I mean, they passed some policies, but the company employees who spoke to the committee felt like it was just clearly not enough, and they felt like some of what happened on January 6th was really inflamed by the company's lack of action and reluctance to delve into these issues and to, really, even hold former President Trump to account for what he was saying on Twitter as well.
DAVIES: Right. Of course, Trump loved Twitter. I mean, he did tens of thousands of tweets over the years. Was Twitter's management motivated in part, according to these employees, by them enjoying the spotlight, enjoying being Donald Trump's chosen social media vehicle?
HARWELL: Yeah, 100%. I think that was the most stunning claim she made, and that was one that was a real headline from one of the committee hearings, which was that Twitter, in her words, protected Trump because he was a star. You know, he had brought a large amount of attention and clout to Twitter. Twitter in social media is effectively an also-ran, right? They're not a Facebook or an Instagram or a TikTok. They're a news platform, and Donald Trump helped make Twitter into a very influential company. And so in her words, she felt like the company had become deferent to Trump because they felt like they couldn't punish somebody who was beneficial in this way. There was kind of a mutually beneficial arrangement here.
But there were other people who spoke to the company, too, from inside Twitter that also suggested that there was some fear of the backlash of being too tough on Trump. And, you know, even before January 6, Trump had always been very infamous for what he would say on Twitter, as anybody who was online during those years knew. I mean, it was a lot of borderline or over-the-line tweets that people were wondering, why is Donald Trump able to talk like this on the platform? Anybody else who was sharing these kinds of messages would be treated differently, and this is what Anika ended up saying to the committee - was that he was treated differently. He was given special treatment because of this impactful role he had in the company.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Drew Harwell. He's a reporter for The Washington Post. He'll be back to talk more after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Drew Harwell, a reporter with The Washington Post. He was part of a team that wrote recently about investigative material developed by the staff of the January 6 Committee that didn't make it into the committee's 800-page final report. The Post reported on a 122-page memo investigators circulated among the committee about how social media platforms failed to address growing online extremism and threats of violence in the weeks that preceded the assault on the Capitol, trends that their own employees flagged and warned about.
When Twitter employees talked to the committee, one of the things they described was, I think, what they felt was just bad management of content moderation particularly at a critical time when - you know, January 5 and 6, when they really needed to be alert and aware. What did they describe?
HARWELL: They felt like Twitter executives had, I guess charitably, a lack of imagination, right? They saw these things as just another spell of online anger that wouldn't translate into anything in the real world. And so there was a big difference between the employees who were on the front lines, had seen just how bad it had gotten among certain tweeters, and felt like this is going to become a real big problem and potentially violent in the real world.
And the executives they were talking to who were saying, the rules we have now are fine, we don't need to go onto any war footing, this is all just part of the process - and I think some of that was colored by their longtime views of Trump, too, and the stance that the company had taken for a while, which was that everything he says is newsworthy, it's not our role to censor what he says, we can't be too overt in cracking down on what he says because that's oppressive to free speech, and that should not be our role. So there was this interplay there.
And what it ended up translating to was that even on January 6, even days and weeks after these employees had been pleading for more resources, more help, people like, you know, Anika Collier Navaroli were effectively running a very minimal operation trying to crack down on threats to violence on that day. So she described to the committee of being one of very few people - she was sitting in her apartment using Twitter, the same interface that any normal user would have, searching out stuff like #ExecuteMikePence and suspending tweets one by one at a time when thousands of tweets were going online, where people were legitimately using Twitter and other online platforms as they were storming the Capitol. And so there was just a huge mismatch that left them feeling incapable of really dealing with this problem because of how little had been done in advance.
DAVIES: Right. And I think she spoke about how there was very little supervision available to content moderators on that day. They just didn't staff up. They didn't expect to do anything, you know, intense.
HARWELL: Yeah. And the committee had actually asked people like Anika, was Twitter on a war footing at this moment? I mean, they had been warned by people like you for days that something was coming. Like, did they have more people even working that day? And the truth was they didn't. I mean, it was just a normal day to them. And again, the signs were clear. I mean, the alarms were blaring. Anybody could see how bad this could be. And so they felt like Twitter was just totally flat-footed in this. And, you know, content moderation is a thankless job on a normal day, right? It is not an easy job. These people look at the worst of the worst online. They have to deal with a lot, and they're fairly under-resourced, generally. But this day was especially bad because there was just so much real-world harm that they felt powerless to address, and they felt like they didn't even have the companies, you know, helping support them in this.
DAVIES: Facebook was obviously a big player in all of this. And looking at the memo that you discovered that was developed by investigators from the committee, they - you know, they revealed that Facebook had a dangerous organizations policy that resulted in the removal of thousands of groups, pages and accounts and ads tied to QAnon and various militia groups. I mean, that sounds like fairly aggressive action. Overall, how did Facebook do as the investigators discovered it?
HARWELL: A lot of the problems that had plagued Twitter were visible with Facebook as well. And some of these were debates that were playing out inside the committee even up to the writing of the final report. But the dynamic came down to, do we target all of these groups all at once with the same kind of force if that could step on their free speech rights? Or do we really act proactively in addressing the potential for violence here?
And so, you know, the committee spoke to people like Frances Haugen, who was a Facebook whistleblower who came to Capitol Hill. And they spoke to employees inside the company who felt like the company was sort of bowing to inertia in resisting their sort of stronger efforts to take down more groups, to be more aggressive in the rules they were setting because they wanted to not be, as Mark Zuckerberg said a long time ago, these arbiters of truth. They didn't want to sort of deal with these issues. And we then saw these groups sort of weaponize that inertia to incite more violence, to be more aggressive in gathering on January 6.
You know, I will say Facebook had stood up some election integrity efforts even before January 6 that were about, you know, if somebody posts something about the election being stolen, we're going to post a disclaimer that actually that's false. We're going to link you to proactive, right, accurate information. Facebook had very notably disbanded those efforts before January 6. I think they sort of felt like the election's over; we're not needed anymore. That was specifically called out as an institutional failure that could have led to some of these things. But it all sort of came back to, could the company have done more, taken down more, been more active in addressing these calls to violence? And would that have made any difference on January 6?
DAVIES: There was also mention in this memo that you and your colleagues found of a white list that Facebook kept of certain accounts that were exempted from the fact-checking that would occur on other accounts. Among the people on that list - Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr. Glenn Beck, Gateway Pundit, various other conservative things. Did the committee find that troubling, the committee's investigators?
HARWELL: Yeah, they did. I mean, this was clearly special treatment for very high-profile people with big audiences who were known for saying things that would otherwise be fact-checked. Yeah, this was an issue because here was Facebook making a technically defensive position that would help the company, but that would actually contribute to a lot more lies and misinformation being spread to general users. So yeah, there was a feeling that this was a secret list that was not shared with the general public that was not just damaging their experience, but actively fostering these false narratives that, you know, many of which became pretty central to January 6. And there was a frustration that these elite provocateurs were getting to play by a different set of rules than anybody else.
DAVIES: And what, if anything, did Facebook executives say in defense of this to the committee?
HARWELL: Their argument was that this is a way to streamline the moderation process, right? These are people who - anything they say that becomes a controversy for Facebook, they want to handle at a high level and treat them with a different pair of gloves than people like you and me. I mean, you know, Facebook's argument in some of this is that these are people who will be targeted for, you know, mass reporting or, you know, will just sort of be at the center of a lot of kind of mucky battles. So they want to have a bigger, sort of different level of special treatment for these folks.
But, you know, I think what it ends up being is that these people can break rules, push the boundaries without penalty or consequence. And you certainly saw this with Donald Trump on Twitter where his profile cannot not even be accessed in the same way as anybody. He was constantly, no matter what he said, he was on zero strikes forever. And there was nothing he could say that would really push him over the line until we actually saw January 6. So this was a clear sort of technical measure that had become really problematic for the committee and for the general public.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Drew Harwell. He is a tech reporter for The Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Drew Harwell. He is a reporter for The Washington Post and was part of a team that wrote recently about investigative material developed by the staff of the January 6 Committee that didn't make it into the committee's final report that dealt with how social media platforms failed to address online extremism and threats of violence in the weeks that led up to the January 6 assault.
The investigators were pretty thorough about this. They also looked at YouTube, found certainly some failings in their efforts to restrict content. YouTube was very influential. And they also looked at less-well-known platforms and sites, you know, Reddit and Tik-Tok. And some of these - in addition, some of these alt tech and really fringe sites, you know, Parler and Gab and 8kun, some of these things that were really places, I gather, where participants in the January 6 assault were really communicating directly about their intentions and plans, right?
HARWELL: Yeah. And the committee found that there was effectively a food chain of how this information was spread around January 6. On one end, you had the mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter that were a little more active about moderation and that, you know, if you're a merchant of pro-Trump memes or, you know, lies about the election, you're maybe a little more worried about being knocked off the platform there. And yet it's a really important sort of recruitment base. It's a way to get attention. It's a way to sort of steer the mainstream narrative you still want to be on. That's kind of one end of it is the mainstream.
But on the other end of this food chain is, yeah, these smaller sites like 4chan and Parler and Gab where you know you're just among people who agree with you, you know, fellow far-right extremists. And it's a smaller community. You're not breaking through and convincing anybody. Everybody already is on your same side. And yet it's a place where you can use your creativity to make these memes that will take down the other side and share these maps of where to go in D.C. to really break through. So it was sort of like a place where these people could sort of consolidate their efforts and create the memes and the other material that they could use to sort of move through that food chain and reach mainstream notoriety.
DAVIES: The writers of this memorandum did include an end section where they - titled "Broader Conclusions And Recommendations." And it struck me when I read this - there are not radical, far-sweeping changes. This stuff is difficult, isn't it?
HARWELL: Yeah, it is difficult. You know, I think when this process began, people were hoping that this final report would give us some clarity with, you know, the imprimatur of the federal government saying let's pass new regulations to require either no auditing and transparency of these companies or to threaten punishment against social media executives when you see failures like this happen again. You don't see any of those policy recommendations in the report. You see the committee effectively telling the companies to do a better job in policing themselves. And, you know, that goes back to what some of the committee folks were telling us, which was that this was a missed opportunity. Here was a chance for the federal government to say social media is a critical part of Americans' lives. And we want to set a framework for the productive use of it and keep people safe. But instead, the conclusions ended up really being a reflection of just how little ground we've made on this issue, which is a complicated issue, but is still one that is really important to us. So I think people came away from it with a lot more questions than answers.
DAVIES: You know, it's been alleged by conservatives for quite some time that social media are biased against them and that you can see that in their decisions. The investigators did test that in some cases, didn't they, I mean, to see whether that was generally true with some of the larger social media platforms? What did they find?
HARWELL: Yeah, what they found was really contradictory to that point. I mean, and that point has been something that Elon Musk was sharing in the Twitter files that has been the main cause celebre of Republicans in Washington, which is that Silicon Valley is a bunch of Californian techies who are against us and are tearing us down. They're using social media to silence and censor us. And it's unfair, you know? And the committee tested that. And from the many interviews and the many thousands of pages of documents, I mean, what they found was, really, the opposite. I mean, people like Donald Trump, viewpoints like stop the steal, were given a huge amount of leeway.
I mean, in Trump's case, he effectively was not punished for saying the same sort of things that would have knocked anybody else off the platform. He was really treated in a special way so as to keep his account on Twitter for years. And, you know, so he was really - instead of being sort of unfairly censored, he was elevated and promoted, which was, you know, totally the opposite of what people were conveying in the Twitter files. And so I think that was one big surprise from this whole investigation, which was that, really, these Twitter employees were worried that Twitter had not gone far enough and that some of that silence or reluctance to be more aggressive had contributed to what we ended up seeing happen at the Capitol.
DAVIES: Well, Drew Harwell, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HARWELL: Yeah, thank you.
DAVIES: Drew Harwell is a technology reporter with The Washington Post. Along with colleagues Cat Zakrzewski and Cristiano Lima, he wrote recently about information that investigators from the January 6 committee developed on social media platforms' failure to address online extremism in the weeks before the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the crime novel "Everybody Knows," by Jordan Harper. She says it's a classic LA noir for the #MeToo era. This is FRESH AIR.
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