U.S. heads into one of the most perilous phases of American democracy since the Civil War, social media companies are scrambling to shore up their patchwork defenses for a moment they appear to have believed would never come.
Most major platforms pulled the emergency break last week, deplatforming the president of the United States and enforcing suddenly robust rules against conspiracies, violent threats and undercurrents of armed insurrection, all of which proliferated on those services for years. But within a week’s time, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google had all made historic decisions in the name of national stability — and appearances. Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit and even Pinterest took their own actions to prevent a terror plot from being hatched on their platforms.
Now, we’re in the waiting phase. More than a week after a deadly pro-Trump riot invaded the iconic seat of the U.S. legislature, the internet still feels like it’s holding its breath, a now heavily-fortified inauguration ceremony looming ahead.
What’s still out there
On the largest social network of all, images hyping follow-up events continued to circulate mid this week. One digital Facebook flyer promoted an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state Capitols,” pushing the dangerous and false conspiracy that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Facebook says that it’s working to identify flyers calling for “Stop the Steal” adjacent events using digital fingerprinting, the same process it uses to remove terrorist content from ISIS and Al Qaeda. The company noted that it has seen flyers calling for events on January 17 across the country, January 18 in Virginia and inauguration day in D.C.
At least some of Facebook’s new efforts are working: one popular flyer TechCrunch observed on the platform was removed from some users’ feeds this week. A number of “Stop the Steal” groups we’d observed over the last month also unceremoniously blinked offline early this week following more forceful action from the company. Still, given the writing on the wall, many groups had plenty of time to tweak their names by a few words or point followers elsewhere to organize.
With only days until the presidential transition, acronym-heavy screeds promoting QAnon, an increasingly mainstream collection of outrageous pro-Trump government conspiracy theories, also remain easy to find. On one page with 2,500 followers, a QAnon believer pushed the debunked claim that anti-fascists executed the attack on the Capitol, claiming “January 6 was a trap.”
On a different QAnon group, an ominous post from an admin issued Congress a warning: “We have found a way to end this travesty! YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED!” The elaborate conspiracy’s followers were well represented at the deadly riot at the Capitol, as the many giant “Q” signs and esoteric t-shirt slogans made clear.
In a statement to TechCrunch about the state of extremism on the platform, Facebook says it is coordinating with terrorism experts as well as law enforcement “to prevent direct threats to public safety.” The company also noted that it works with partners to stay aware of violent content taking root on other platforms.
Facebook’s efforts are late and uneven, but they’re also more than the company has done to date. Measures from big social networks coupled with the absence of far-right social networks like Parler and Gab have left Trump’s most ardent supporters once again swearing off Silicon Valley and fanning out for an alternative.