Social media’s role in the DC riots?

Comments written for the Channel News Asia, with inputs based on primary research from Dr. Saifuddin Ahmed

Parts of the riot were planned online on Facebook etc – why wasn’t anything done?

This time the call for rioting came from the man himself, from a video posted to social media, so it’s not necessary to look for clues on what caused people to congregate at the Capitol Hill. Even so, in the past four years and especially since the election in November 2020, the misinformation around the election has stirred up anger and resentment among people and fomented this riot. Saif’s multi-wave survey conducted before, during, and after the 2020 election suggests greater mistrust and skepticism among the people regarding the election.

Let’s consider the days leading up to the riot. The anger, misinformation, and resentment on social media have focused on conspiracy theories around a stolen election. However, most social media platforms have been following a reactive rather than a proactive policy to institute bans and censorship. From their perspective, it may have looked like another spike of negative sentiment in what’s surely been a spiky timeline, especially since misinformation around the November 2020 first began to make the rounds (on social media, I might add).

Now lets consider what happened after the riot. In the last 24 hours, the platforms have perhaps set a new precedent of their own volition, taking the most serious action against calls inciting rioting, violence and free speech by blocking Donald Trump out of his Facebook and Twitter accounts for 12 hours, and deleting photos and videos of the riots off their platforms. It’s possibly indicative of a more proactive approach to content moderation, and certainly one that most would welcome if it means less misinformation, less toxicity, and less radicalization on social media.

Should the platforms have taken action earlier — too little too late?

You could say that its better late than never. I feel like they may have disregarded the more serious threat of wilful manipulation of Trump’s large following, and focused on the low-hanging fruit in banning communities. With regards to pro-active takedowns, platforms began to take strict action against the abusers of free speech in the last year. Reddit banned a number of right and leftwing wing communities in June 2020 when it expanded its rules to explicitly ban hate speech. Facebook took down a network of QAnon groups on Facebook in Dec 2020. But uptil this point, they had only been flagging some of Trumo’s hate speech for misinformation and hiding it under an interstitial, but so far they had not removed the content.

There are two things that can be said in defense of the platforms. The first is that only Twitter and Facebook aren’t the part of the problem. It should be noted that even where Twitter and Facebook have been increasingly censorious, some banned communities like TheDonald have now set up their own internet forum to incite violence. This would mean that rather than rely on one or two social media platforms to set up policies to protect democracies — what is needed is legislation for greater accountability for internet behavior.

The second is that platforms say that they can’t possibly moderate all the content. When content is flagged, it usually takes a few days to see an account suspended. Facebook was allegedly used to incite riots in countries like Myanmar but claimed a lack of resources to deal with the problem. But it seems from the flurry of activity in the last 24 hours that they could be doing much more. It definitely should remind us that social media platforms are for-profit organization that can choose to look the other way when the the context is not “important.”

Are the DC riots a turning point for social media platforms?
The DC riots can be branded as an incitement to riot, but to my understanding the riot is only a symptom of a larger misinformation problem. In the American context, there have repeatedly been calls for greater social media regulation, which is one bipartisan issue that both Democrats and Republicans agree on, for different reasons. Definitely, I think the coming year will see a lot more legislation to do with misinformation going to the Senate floor.

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