Just how much did social media big wigs know about the Jan. 6 insurrection beforehand? For those investigating the storming of the Capitol, getting to the bottom of that question has been like trying to pull out rotten teeth with a pair of chopsticks. Now, a new report shows just how far investigators have gone to understand what tech companies internally knew before insurrectionists breached the Capitol building.
Rolling Stone, citing unnamed sources familiar with the Jan. 6 investigation, reported the committee is growing increasingly annoyed at Twitter’s obstinance to handing over its internal communications. The committee wants Twitter’s Slack messages centered around its moderation policies in the lead up to the attack on the Capitol building. The committee is hosting its first public hearings about the insurrection Thursday evening.
This latest report is more evidence of the challenge faced by social media companies that cite First Amendment protections and the need to protect employees’ privacy while facing calls to account for their failure to curb disinformation on their platforms. Twitter itself has a hard time understanding why disinformation and right-leaning info gets proliferated on its site.
Twitter told Rolling Stone they have already “provided appropriate, relevant information to contribute to this important investigation,” though it must “evaluate the merits of each request to protect the rights of the people who use our service, as well as the rights of Twitter and its employees.”
Leaked internal documents from other social media companies such as the Facebook Papers proved how much at least this one company knew about the lead up to the insurrection, and how the concerns of employees of this rising tide of violence fell on deaf ears (You can read more of Gizmodo’s analysis of the Facebook Papers here). In the wake of those reveals, it’s unsurprising why the committee has been asking other companies to explain what they knew before thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol on that winter afternoon in 2021.
In August of 2021, the committee demanded records from multiple social media companies related to the attack. The committee asked then Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to hand over all internal or external documents about misinformation leading up to the 2020 election as well as extremists who wanted to overturn the election.
Half a year later, the committee was apparently unsatisfied with what companies were willing to provide. Four of the biggest tech and social media companies were subpoenaed by the select committee in January this year, including Reddit, Meta, Alphabet (which owns Google), and Twitter. This came after chairs of the committee claimed that these companies’ previous response to investigators was inadequate. Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee chair, had previously said they were lacking in documents and information from the companies that could explain how online misinformation and extremism contributed to the insurrection.
In particular, the Jan. 6 committee claimed Twitter users used the platform to communicate and plan the insurrection, and that the company was warned about their scheme before the Capitol was stormed. In its January letter to Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, the committee noted that users, in particular former President Donald Trump himself, amplified false allegations of election fraud. Trump’s account was banned a few days after the insurrection.
“After over four months of good-faith negotiations on the part of the Select Committee, it has become clear that Twitter is unwilling to commit to voluntarily and expeditiously complying with the Select Committee’s requests,” Thompson wrote in his January letter to Twitter.
On the flip side of Twitter revealing its internal info, the company has an awkward and complicated history of handing over user data when governments present them official orders. The company has at least partially disclosed user information in 64% of government requests, according to the company’s published metrics.