Social media played a key role in Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol Building, with sites favored by the far-right, like Parler and Gab, sharing information such as which streets to take to avoid the police and which tools would pry open doors, according to media reports.
“At least a dozen people posted about carrying guns into the halls of Congress,” reported The New York Times.
The social media build-up to what happened in Washington, D.C. began shortly after the presidential election and was conducted fairly openly.
The Atlantic reported that President Donald Trump’s “refusal to concede has sparked the #StopTheSteal movement—a broad online coalition of QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boy militia members, MAGA diehards, and some Republican politicians. It spent months amping itself up on social media, making plans to attack its own democracy.”
Meanwhile, in a related move, Facebook announced it was banning Trump from its site “indefinitely,” reported The Washington Post.
“We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post.
“Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
On the pro-Trump site TheDonald.com―the new home of the banned Reddit forum r/The Donald―forum users on Wednesday gathered for a “watch party,” cheering the mob on, reported The Atlantic.
On this site, “Commenters called for those on the scene to find the “Congress filth,” and posted all-caps approval: ‘DEATH TO THE WEAK AND DECADENT REPUBLIC! HAIL TRUMP!'”
Trump urged action on Twitter, and on Wednesday Twitter hid these tweets and locked the president’s account until 12 hours after he deleted them. Facebook also “took its boldest stance yet today,” removing the president’s video, locking him out of his account for 24 hours, and announcing that it will remove all content that praises the insurrection.
However, Facebook had also been used to plan the insurrection at the Capitol, according to reporting.
“On Facebook, a group called Red State Secession gathered nearly 8,000 members,” reported Buzzfeed. The group sent people to a website that offered travel routes to Washington, D.C. and provided memes to post on social media.
Even venture capitalists “who had reaped riches from investing in social media” urged Twitter and Facebook to do more, said The New York Times.
“For four years you’ve rationalized this terror. Inciting violent treason is not a free speech exercise,” Chris Sacca, a tech investor who had invested in Twitter, wrote to Dorsey and Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg. “If you work at those companies, it’s on you too. Shut it down.”
Many are questioning why the security forces at the Capitol seemed so unprepared, when Trump supporters had been openly planning for weeks on mainstream social media, pro-Trump and far-right sites.
“Hundreds of extremists’ posts discussed bringing firearms in violation of Washington, D.C., law,” according to Buzzfeed.
New York Times reporter Kara Swisher posted an interview late Wednesday with Parler CEO John Matze titled “If You Were on This App, You Saw the Mob Coming.”
Parler is much smaller than Twitter or Facebook with approximately 12 million users (Twitter has 88 million), but it is growing rapidly, and Matze said the site showed a traffic spike of 2 million people in the early afternoon on Wednesday.
According to Matze, most of the traffic surge were people “trying to understand what was happening.”
While Swisher called Parler “the darling of the far-right,” Matze said the site’s mission is to create a “neutral town square.”
Efforts to censor speech on social media are only deepening divisions, said Matze.
“There’s a large movement of people who want to push for authoritarian measures and censorship and it just puts gas right on the fire,” said Matze. “You can’t stop people and change their opinions by force, by censoring them. They’ll just go somewhere else and do it.”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.