Jan. 6 could not have happened without Big Tech

If you want to prevent another white supremacist insurrection, you have to go after Facebook. And Google. And Amazon.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Dewey Saunders
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On Jan. 6, hundreds of former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed Capitol Hill after a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C.. Whether you call it a coup, a siege, or an insurrection, the events that day spurred endless conversation about how to ensure it never happens again. But as Democrats and Republicans alike focus on increasing security funding for Capitol Police, the National Guard, and other law enforcement, all I want to know is when we’re going to pivot to what matters: getting Big Tech the fuck out of here.

As soon as the insurrection ended, there was talk about the role social media played in it. People pointed to obvious culprits like Parler, a far-right alternative to Twitter, while Facebook tried to quickly excuse itself from the narrative — COO Sheryl Sandberg claimed the insurrection was “largely” organized on “platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate.” But in the months that followed, as rioters were dragged into courtrooms, Facebook was the most referenced social media site in charging documents from the Justice Department. We now know that people were rampantly spreading misinformation on Facebook and making outright insurrection threats ahead of the riot.

For me, that alone is enough to say it’s time to start regulating Big Tech — which means not only breaking up companies like Facebook, but putting in place new legislation to ensure a Facebook 2.0 can’t pop up in its place. Granted, I’m not a very forgiving person. But if you think I’m calling for the corporate guillotine too early, remember that this is not nearly the first time Facebook has been connected to these louder forms of white supremacy. In 2019, the killer in Christchurch, New Zealand, live-streamed his massacre on the platform and, a year later, four protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sued Facebook after white militias mobilized there.

It’s not like white supremacists are slinking around Facebook’s underbelly, either. White supremacy thrives on the network. In October, the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that the company “focuses on growth — of users and time spent on its platforms — to the exclusion of everything else. For Facebook, growth trumps all, even the health and safety of its most vulnerable users.”

That was clear in the weeks leading up to not only Jan. 6, but the election itself. Although Twitter attempted to address concerns by flagging hundreds of Trump’s tweets yelling about nonexistent election fraud as misinformation, a study from New York University found those lies spread more easily across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit. Although Facebook had its own measures, they weren’t nearly effective enough.

Co-author and research scientist Megan A. Brown stated, “To more effectively counteract misinformation on social media, it’s important for both technologists and public officials to consider broader content moderation policies that can work across social platforms rather than singular platforms.”

Meanwhile, white supremacists continue to organize on explicitly friendly forums like TheDonald.Win and messaging apps like Telegram. Mother Jones reported last January that a number of white supremacists fled to Telegram following both the death of Parler, and WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy that stated the app reserved the right to share data — like phone numbers and IP addresses — with Facebook and its other apps, Instagram and Facebook messenger. Because, yes, in case you forgot, Facebook owns those other platforms, too.

Deplatforming white supremacists is important, but where tech companies go wrong is failing to proactively address banned users’ exoduses to other sites. “The tech companies should work together in this, but they usually do not,” Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who studies online extremism, told Mother Jones “Company A will wash their hands of it and ignore the impact on Company B. Company B will often pride themselves on ‘winning’ the customers from Company A. And so on.” Without any more meaningful cooperation or concrete action, social media platforms will continue to treat white supremacists as users to be wooed, rather than potentially dangerous actors who should be barred from the perks of visibility.

Often, people believe that the solution is working with tech companies on anti-extremism efforts, and ensuring white supremacy is explicitly targeted within them. The New York Times recently published an op-ed calling for a “public health approach to preventing violent extremism.” First of all, we have that. It’s literally called Countering Violent Extremism, a government program and overarching framework of utilizing a “soft” approach to address “extremism.” Under Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden, CVE has subjected mostly Muslim communities to surveillance in all avenues of life — on social media, from health care providers, at schools. Solid 0/10, would not recommend.

But most importantly, pairing Big Tech companies with the security apparatus cannot be trusted to prevent another insurrection. Trying to address white supremacy as a new form of domestic terrorism will only harm the same communities that those white supremacists want dead. We’ve seen this before. When CVE rebranded itself as aimed at fighting all types of violent extremism, one of its grant recipients included Life After Hate, a nonprofit that supposedly helps people leave white supremacist groups.

After the Christchurch massacre, Facebook announced plans to work with Life After Hate too, as well as Moonshot CVE, a company claiming it uses technology to disrupt violent extremism. But in 2016, Life After Hate had actually applied for a DHS grant to target “jihadism.” To be clear: The nonprofit supposedly addressing white supremacy wanted federal money to go after Muslim communities.

Many people want to paint insurrectionists as “fringe,” “extremist” groups, but in reality they are just more overtly showcasing the violence that Big Tech upholds every day. Can we ignore how Amazon provides tech services to ICE and previously sold facial recognition technology to police? Or how about Google, which is vying for Pentagon contracts three years after internal uproar over Project Maven, the effort that had Google engineers building software to make drones more deadly?

Part of regulating Big Tech looks like outright breaking up companies. These companies have shown they cannot be trusted to address white supremacy on their own platforms. They refuse to meaningfully work together, or with the communities most at risk, so they don’t get any more chances. There’s no reason behemoths like Facebook and Amazon should be allowed to remain intact. Breaking up companies isn’t the only option, though. Congress also needs to draft legislation to protect people’s privacy — while it’s far from perfect, the United States can look at the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation — and hold companies accountable for the content their algorithms amplify.

Regulating Big Tech certainly won’t solve white supremacy. As much as I hate Facebook, it didn’t create this particular problem. But we can still ensure that white supremacists don’t have such huge and widely accessible platforms on which to organize another insurrection. As the EFF said, “When a company’s badness is inseparable from its bigness, it's time to consider breaking that company up.”