President Trump and its facilitators in government and right-wing media will bear responsibility for Wednesday’s insurgency on Capitol Hill, but internet platforms – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, in particular – have played a role in fomenting and advocating. facilitation that no one should overlook.
In their relentless pursuit of engagement and profit, these platforms have created algorithms that amplify hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. This damaging content is particularly engaging and serves as a lubricant for companies as profitable as they are influential. These platforms also enforce their terms of service in a way that promotes extreme rhetoric and behavior, primarily right-wing extremism.
Since 2015, when Trump announced his presidential campaign, the relationship between internet platforms and the political right has grown increasingly symbiotic. The business choices of internet platforms have allowed an explosion of not only white supremacy, but also Covid denial and anti-ax extremism, which have variously undermined the nation’s pandemic response, nearly sabotaging the election. presidential and played a fundamental role in the violence on Capitol Hill. A huge industry has evolved on the platform giants to raise money and sell products to people with extreme ideas.
Platforms are hiding behind the First Amendment to justify their policies, claiming they don’t want to be arbiters of truth. There are two flaws in this argument. First, no thoughtful critic wants a platform to act like a censor. Second, the algorithmic amplification of extreme content is a business choice made in search of profit; eliminating it would reduce the harms of hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories without any limitation on freedom of expression. Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory made this point in a WIRED essay when she noted “Freedom of expression is not the same as freedom of access. “
Until this insurgency, many policymakers and experts rejected the rising tide of online extremism, believing it to be contained safely and therefore harmless. Their lack of concern allowed the audience and the intensity of the extremism to increase.
Because internet platforms play a dominant role in our national conversation, extremism cultivated online has infiltrated the real world. We saw evidence earlier this year when white supremacists occupied the state capital of Michigan, then revolted in Minneapolis, Louisville, Portland, and Kenosha after the murder of George Floyd. Internet platforms, Facebook in particular, played a central role in organizing these acts of violence, as well as in Washington, DC yesterday. Journalists discovered police members in Facebook groups devoted to various far-right ideas, which may explain why police departments in some cities have not taken the threat of right-wing extremism seriously. Videos in the press and online have shown police officers standing as insurgents break the law and even take selfies with them.
The January 6 violence followed a rally where the president urged crowds to march towards Capitol Hill and “show their strength.” The rally was organized and streamed live on all major internet platforms, which also amplified the photos and videos posted during the day. Twitter and Facebook both allowed Trump to post an inflammatory video about mob violence and only removed it after a tsunami of negative comments. Twitter suspended Trump’s account for 12 hours and Facebook indefinitely – likely due to pressure from employees and policymakers – but irreversible damage has been done.
The scale of Internet platforms is such that their mistakes can undermine democracy, public health, and public safety, even in countries as large as the United States. Facebook’s own research found that 64% the moment someone joins an extremist Facebook group, they do so because the platform recommended them. Facebook also recognized that pages and groups associated with QAnon extremism had at least three million members, meaning that Facebook helped radicalize two million people. Over the past six months, QAnon has integrated MAGA and the anti-tax movement, with major support from platforms and policies from Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. The recording of his recent conversation with Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger confirmed that President Trump has joined his supporters in embracing QAnon and his conspiracy theories.
Congress and law enforcement must decide what to do with the unprecedented insurgency in Washington. President Trump and parts of the right-wing media must pay. The same is true for internet platforms. They have prioritized their own benefits and prerogatives over democracy and the public health and safety of the people who use their products. It is no exaggeration to say that internet platforms, as well as new technologies like artificial intelligence and smart devices, are not secure. They are very often created by people who have no incentive to anticipate, let alone prevent, harm. As it stands, the incentives have encouraged the development of a predatory ecosystem, with platforms, users and politicians plagued by both.