The online world still can’t quit the ‘Big Lie’

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are barreling toward the midterms with sharply contrasting political narratives about last year’s violence: Democrats want online companies to do more to stamp out election-related misinformation, while Republicans allege these platforms are seizing on the riot to censor right-wing voices.

“One of the most alarming developments of 2021 since the insurrection has been an effort, especially among influencers and politicians, to normalize conspiracy theories around election denial,” said Mary McCord, a former national security official and executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“They’ve mainstreamed ideologically driven violence,” she added. “An alarming number of Americans now believe that violence may be necessary to ‘save the country.'”

A political hot potato

One major reason policymakers and social media companies still struggle to contain Jan. 6 falsehoods is that the Capitol assault itself has become contested territory.

In the days following the riots, both Republicans and Democrats condemned the deadly violence, with longstanding Trump allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) calling for an end to hostilities. Trump himself faced revulsion from many of his supporters and even some of his own appointees immediately after Jan. 6.

That initial bipartisanship gave the social media giants political cover to remove reams of election misinformation and hand over data to law enforcement agencies investigating the attack. The bans of Trump — though Google’s YouTube platform and Facebook reserved the right to reinstate him before the 2024 presidential election — also marked a watershed moment.

“Trump being deplatformed was when the companies crossed a line into a new type of enforcement,” said Katie Harbath, a former senior Facebook public policy executive who previously worked for the Senate Republicans’ national campaign arm. “After that, they’ve felt more comfortable about taking down content posted by politicians.”

That comfort did not last long.

Instead, GOP voters and politicians have increasingly embraced the falsehoods about the 2020 election that helped stoke the attack, while Congress — and many in the country — is split along party lines about what really happened on Jan. 6. That has left social media companies vulnerable to partisan attacks for any action they take or fail to take linked to last year’s riots.

To Democrats, the companies simply haven’t done enough.

“It’s clear that some social media companies have chosen profits over people’s safety,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has brought the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google to testify about their role leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. “These corporations have no intention of making their platforms safer, and instead have taken actions to amplify content that endangers our communities and incites violence.”

Republicans, though, have increasingly recast the rioters as freedom fighters raising valid questions about the outcome of the election. Lawmakers including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have portrayed the Democratic-led investigation into the insurrection as a “political witch hunt on Republicans and Trump supporters.” (Greene, who made that accusation in a Facebook video that has received 309,000 views since early December, had her personal Twitter account permanently suspended this week for posting Covid misinformation.)

They’re also rallying around the people who have been kicked off of social media.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has threatened reprisals against the liability protections that online companies enjoy under a law known as Section 230 — which shields companies from lawsuits for most user-posted content and allows them to moderate or remove material they find objectionable.

McCarthy warned in a series of tweets on Tuesday, after Greene’s suspension, that a future Republican House majority would work to ensure that if Twitter and other social media companies remove “constitutionally protected speech (not lewd and obscene),” they will “lose 230 protection.”

“Acting as publisher and censorship regime should mean shutting down the business model you rely on today, and I will work to make that happen,” he added.

To Democrats, the platforms’ failure to stop all Jan. 6 hate speech from circulating online highlights the need for new laws. They hoped to gain momentum from last fall’s disclosures by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who released internal documents showing the tech giant had struggled to contain insurrectionists’ posts in the run-up to Jan. 6.

A Democratic-led bill introduced after Haugen’s Senate appearance seeks to remove online platforms’ Section 230 protections if they “knowingly or recklessly” use algorithms to recommend content that can lead to severe offline emotional or physical harm. The bill has no Republican backing and has drawn criticism for potentially infringing on free speech.

In multiple briefings, lawmakers and staffers of both parties confronted the large social media companies with accusations that they had played a role in attacks, according to two tech executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door meetings. The discussions have often turned personal, with policymakers accusing the companies of playing fast and loose with American democracy.

With little bipartisan agreement, one of the tech executives added, the social networks are increasingly cautious in how they handle Jan. 6-related content that does not categorically violate their terms of service.

“Congress has struggled to find an appropriate path forward,” Coons conceded when asked about lawmakers’ role in handling Jan. 6 and election misinformation. “We have different views of what’s the harm that most needs to be stopped based on our politics and because — as a society — we’re committed to free speech.”

The misinformation rabbit hole

Since the Capitol Hill riots, the major social networks have removed countless accounts associated with white supremacists and domestic extremists. They’ve tweaked algorithms to hide Jan. 6 conspiracy videos from popping into people’s feeds. The companies have championed investments in fact-checking partnerships and election-related online information centers.

Yet scratch the surface, and it is still relatively easy to find widely shared posts denying the election results, politicians promoting Jan. 6 falsehoods to millions of followers and, in the murkier parts of the internet, coordinated campaigns to stoke distrust about Biden’s 2020 victory and to coordinate potential violent responses.

POLITICO discovered reams of posts related to 2020 election and Jan. 6 misinformation, across six separate social media networks, over a four-week period ending on Jan. 4, 2022. The findings were based on data collected via CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Facebook that reviews posts on the platform and on Twitter, as well as separate analyses via YouTube and three fringe social networks, Gettr, Telegram and Gab.

The content included partisan attacks from elected officials and online influencers peddling mistruths about Jan. 6 to large online audiences. Within niche online communities on alternative social networks, domestic extremists shared violent imagery and openly discussed attacking election officials.

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