January 6 Select Committee Requests Information from Social Media Companies

Justin Hendrix / Aug 27, 2021

Following its request for Executive Branch records this week, the January 6 Select Committee has issued requests for information to 15 social media, message app and live streaming companies, including 4chan, 8kun (formerly 8chan), Facebook, Gab, Google, Parler, Reddit, Snapchat, Telegram, theDonald.win, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter, YouTube and Zello.

While the letters do not reference communications between any specific individuals, they do refer to a wide range of potential actors involved in January 6 and other threats related to the transition of power. The requests seek all data regarding "[d]omestic violent extremists, including racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, militia violent extremists, sovereign citizen violent extremists, QAnon, or other extremists associated with efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including the January 6, 2021, attack, attacks against other State capitols, and attempted attacks against the January 20, 2021 inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr."

The requests go beyond seeking information about user posts and messages, to also include information on policy changes, internal assessments the companies may have conducted, tweaks to algorithms and other related data:

The letters to the social media companies seek a range of records, including data, reports, analyses, and communications stretching back to spring of 2020. The Select Committee is also seeking information on policy changes social media companies adopted—or failed to adopt—to address the spread of false information, violent extremism, and foreign malign influence, including decisions on banning material from platforms and contacts with law enforcement and other government entities.

The language in the requests signals that the Select Committee intends to look at how law enforcement and other government agencies and officials have communicated with and acquired information from the various platforms. The language seeks not only what requests have been made by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, but also the basis for such requests. Congressional hearings have focused on what evidence was available to law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security in advance of January 6, and how that evidence was or was not used to make decisions about security.

Presumably all of the platforms contacted by the Select Committee hosted false claims about the election and content related to the attack on the Capitol, while some were used by the insurrectionists to coordinate and facilitate their actions that day.

After the January 6 attack, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg said, “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.” Subsequently, charging documents the Justice Department filed against members of the Capitol Hill mob actually cite Facebook more than any other platform, and an internal company report published by BuzzFeed News indicates Facebook failed to recognize and pre-empt the harm posed by the Stop the Steal movement that metastasized across its pages and groups.

Substantial planning for violence at the Capitol also took place at TheDonald[.]win, where, for instance, "commenters debated how best to build a gallows for hanging — or simply terrifying — members of Congress deemed disloyal," according to the Washington Post.

For its part, Parler, a site popular among supporters of the former President, has publicized warnings it offered the FBI ahead of January 6, including sending specific threats against the Capitol. Publicly available video scraped from that site gave journalists and researchers an early trove of video to review of the events at the Capitol and at the rally at the Ellipse, as hundreds of Parler users in Washington D.C. that day filmed themselves.

Similarly, Zello, an app that enables walkie-talkie style audio communication, was already home to substantial militia recruitment and organizing before January 6, and was used on the day itself. Micah Loewinger, a reporter at WNYC's On the Media and Hampton Stall, the founder of MilitiaWatch, captured audio of individuals involved in the insurrection directly from the app in real time.

At least one of the individuals addressed in the requests- Jim Watkins, identified as the owner of 8kun- was physically present at President Trump's January 6 rally at the Ellipse, marched with the crowd to the Capitol, and cheered on the insurrectionists as they scaled the Capitol steps and scaffolding. His participation in the day's events is depicted in the HBO documentary, Q: Into the Storm, which suggests Watkins and his son, Ron, played a substantial role in developing and directing the Q Anon conspiracy theory espoused by a significant number of individuals who participated in the insurrection. Q Anon- designated as dangerous by the FBI- was incubated on 8kun and spread widely on major platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube before enforcement actions against it.

Part 2 of the storming of the Capitol sequence in Q: Into the Storm pic.twitter.com/yjr70eIkcf

— Cullen (@CullenHoback) August 20, 2021

Watkins is not the only one of the executives contacted by the Select Committee known to support the insurrection. Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, lauded the assault on the Capitol as it happened, and his platform has spread disinformation about the events that day.

Gab has emailed its users a video it (falsely) claims shows the insurrection to be a "hoax." Gab's CEO Andrew Torba literally lauded the insurrection as it was happening & urged the insurrectionists to storm the Senate. pic.twitter.com/LSdLLrhOph

— Alex Kaplan (@AlKapDC) May 19, 2021

The Committee says the result of its inquiry could be "to recommend corrective laws, policies, procedures, rules, or regulations." The firms have two weeks to provide information.


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 & ...