FBI Director Testimony Makes Clear Why January 6th Commission Should Investigate Social Media Platforms

Justin Hendrix / Mar 3, 2021

Congressional hearings in the days since the violent insurrection on January 6th, 2021 have focused on intelligence failures, and why information about the threat against the Capitol did not result in better preparation. But one man warned the country about potential violence months in advance: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Arguably, Zuckerberg has access to more data on the state of political discourse in the United States than any other human being. So, it was notable when, in September 2020, he issued a dire statement. Announcing his platform would impose new rules to curb political disinformation, he told Axios he saw "a heightened risk of civil unrest" following the election. "I think we need to be doing everything that we can to reduce the chances of violence or civil unrest in the wake of this election," he said. "The country is very charged right now.... So I think regardless of what we do, there's some chance that this [unrest] happens across the country. I just want to make sure that we do our part to not contribute to it."

As The Wall Street Journal reported in January, just days before Zuckerberg's statement Facebook's own data scientists had warned the company's executives that "calls to violence were filling the majority of the platform’s top 'civic' Groups, according to documents" that reporter Jeff Horwitz reviewed. All the more galling, then, that after deadly events did indeed unfold at the Capitol on January 6th, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg tried to play down the platform's role in the violence. There is mounting evidence to the contrary.

Facebook is not alone. False claims about the election and plans to storm the Capitol circulated on multiple platforms prior to January 6th. Now, lawmakers are asking questions. In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on his department’s response to the January 6th insurrection, FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked by Senator Chris Coons about the role of social media platforms.

"Certainly social media on January 6th, as for the domestic violence threat more broadly, has become a major factor- a catalyst, if you will," said Wray. "The increased speed, dissemination, efficiency, accessibility that it provides, it facilitates a great interconnected nature in a more decentralized way, and so we- I sometimes say terrorism today, and we saw it on the 6th, moves at the speed of social media."

Senator Coons went on express his concern about "ways in which online disinformation and conspiracy theories lead to radicalization and helped pave the way for this particularly tragic event in the history of our democracy," pointing to "how some ways in which social platforms are structured" leads to the acceleration of disinformation. His comments echo a public comment to the quasi-independent Facebook Oversight Board about the removal of Donald Trump from its platform from the Knight First Amendment Institute, which suggested Facebook should "commission an independent investigation into the ways in which its design decisions may have contributed to the events of January 6th."

Presumably such an investigation would require Facebook- or any platform interested in properly interrogating itself- to do a complete forensic review of how people involved in the January 6th insurrection used its platform, including how they coordinated with one another in groups or on messaging apps; how they produced, shared and consumed disinformation and conspiracy theories about the election; and how they engaged with statements from politicians and with the news media. But if the public is to truly understand the role of social media in the events of January 6th, then it must get to the bottom of the "design decisions" that define "the speed of social media."

Though it is unclear as of yet what its structure and ultimate scope may be, the proposed January 6th Commission is one possible investigatory body that could perform such a substantial analysis. With subpoena power, the proposed Commission could conduct a thorough look not just at the direct evidence related to the movements of individuals involved in the insurrection, but rather the broader role of the spread of lies and extremism on social platforms in producing the environment that led to the events at the Capitol.

There are some questions that should be straightforward. "How much did platforms know about the plan to attack the Capitol? And for how long? Did they have a plan in place for such an incidence? If yes, what was the plan?What entities/individuals were behind the accounts that coordinated the attacks?" asked Brandie Nonnecke, Director of the CITRIS Policy Lab at UC Berkeley. But the inquiry should go beyond looking at evidence related to the crimes on the day to consider how features of the platforms contributed to the violent atmosphere. "Who were targeted with the Capitol siege coordination campaigns and how? What role did their recommender system play in this targeting? How aware were they of the role of their recommender systems in spreading this rhetoric/mobilization? How did targeted advertising play a role?"

Indeed there is a range of system data that would provide insight. Mor Naaman, Professor of information science at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, is interested in "how many users were shown recommendations or promoted content for pages and groups associated with Jan 6th extremism, and the response rates to these recommendations." With the relevant data, it would be possible to look at pathways to radicalization. Such data might include the ratio of people joining groups by recommendation, invitation, search, discovery, or direct access, along with demographic data. It would also be useful to look at "user reports and flagging of groups, pages accounts and channels associated with January 6th, and how these reports were handled by the platforms," he said.

David Carroll, Associate Professor of Media Design at Parsons, argues that social platforms fundamentally in the business of behavioral attribution should be able to produce this data. "As advertising businesses, platforms sell the ability to deliver targeted messages and then measure attribution of the effects of targeted messages using online and offline tracking signals (clicks, geofencing). They cannot deny that they are in the business of assembling the kind of data flows that investigations into January 6th require," he said. "It would be embarrassing to their customer base- advertisers- if platforms admitted to not having an effective attribution model."

"[Social media platforms] cannot deny that they are in the business of assembling the kind of data flows that investigations into January 6th require."

David Carroll, Associate Professor of Media Design at Parsons

There are also questions that should be asked and answered about the role of foreign adversaries in amplifying extremism and conspiracy theories. "This was first and foremost a domestic problem, but I would be interested in what they could tell us about the degree to which foreign adversaries amplified the pernicious messaging," said Suzanne Spaulding, senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "Of particular interest to me, given the work I've been doing on info ops undermining public trust in the courts, is the online messaging (foreign and domestic) delegitimizing the 60+ court cases rejecting the Big Lie. The insurrectionists clearly gave those cases no legitimacy."

Just as there were questions during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election about whether the platforms retained relevant data or destroyed it when removing false accounts, there is concern about the preservation of evidence. "This starts with a framing question of what data they still have, with a big caveat of some unknown amount of relevant material may have been permanently deleted when taken down," said Graham Brookie, Director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

"As is almost invariably the case with any form of extremist activity, social media has also played a central role in the organization of the siege and the dissemination of material which helped to inspire involvement in it," concludes a report on the Capitol siege by the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University. Just as the 9/11 Commission considered flaws in our commercial transportation infrastructure and security and what reforms were necessary to defend air travel, a January 6th Commission should consider what reforms are necessary to improve the public sphere. There were questions about possible policy solutions, such as reforms to Section 230, during Wray's testimony. A full account of the available data would inform smart new regulations or legislation.

The American public needs to know what information Mark Zuckerberg was looking at when he warned us about the impending possibility of violence in September 2020, what the data scientists working for him were so concerned about, and what similar data looked like on the other platforms- not only to get to the root of what happened at the Capitol, but to enable society to confront these threats going forward. The January 6th Commission should be empowered to thoroughly consider these questions.

I teach a course on Tech, Media and Democracy in collaboration with David Carroll and Mor Naaman.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...