Social media giants have no excuse for tolerating far-right rhetoric for years.
This month, a number of big tech names –– Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit and YouTube, to name a few –– took punitive action against Donald Trump and his far-right allies for inciting violence around the U.S. Capitol attack. These sites not only permanently banned or restricted Trump’s own account but also purged tens of thousands of accounts associated with conspiracy theory QAnon and other ideologies popular among Trump fans.
They seem to have finally realized the deadly consequences of their failure to monitor extremist networks on their platforms. But such belated responses do not exonerate these companies from the central role they have played for years in the mobilization of the far-right movement.
During a recent interview with Reuters, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg sought to blame the insurrection on smaller fringe services like Parler and Gab, claiming that “these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”
What a vain attempt to deflect blame!
According to a Washington Post article, two-dozen Republican officials and groups used Facebook to arrange bus trips to the Capitol in the days leading up to the assault. The Polk County Republican Party of North Carolina, for example, wrote “BUS TRIP to DC … #StoptheSteal. If your passions are running hot and you’re intending to respond to the President’s call for his supporters to descend on DC on Jan 6, LISTEN UP!” in a Facebook post that was later taken down.
In fact, until last Monday, when Facebook cracked down on content related to election fraud claims, more than 100,000 users have posted the hashtags #StopTheSteal and #FightForTrump in support of Trump’s false assertion that the 2020 election was rigged against him, feeding a climate of ignorance and hatred that eventually gave rise to the riot.
The Capitol insurrection was not an isolated incident. Instead, it speaks to a pattern of white supremacist violence that has been consistently on the rise but still manages to operate largely under the radar.
Following the Charlottesville car attack in 2017, Facebook vowed to banish “organized hate groups” from the network but only deleted eight white nationalist pages at the time. More outrageously, the event page for the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” march was allowed to stay online for a month before it was removed. It was tech companies’ continuous underestimation of the danger of white supremacist propaganda that empowered hate groups to turn mainstream social media sites into convenient platforms to display and mobilize their racist agenda.
Right now, with Trump having been effectively de-platformed, his supporters are exploring alternative social media applications in search of a more secure space to exchange extremist views. Gab, a self-branded “free speech” social media site, claimed that it gained about 10,000 users in an hour after Twitter permanently banned Trump’s account. Some also chose to migrate to Telegram and Signal –– encrypted channels that make it nearly impossible to trace an account back to the user. These new groups are more fractured, spread out and harder to monitor.
Trump is leaving office, but his supporters are here to stay.
It is imperative that tech companies and law enforcement do not repeat the same mistake and, for once, properly acknowledge and deal with the threat of violent white rage.