Facebook followed, blocking the president’s account for the first time for 24 hours for what it said were two policy violations, although it didn’t threaten permanent suspension. It also said it was blocking his Facebook-owned Instagram account.
The social media giants’ actions were the strongest volleys after a year of heightened tension between Silicon Valley and Trump. They came after months of struggling to combat baseless allegations of a stolen election long stoked by Trump and his allies.
Trump belatedly called for calm on Twitter as the riot at the Capitol earlier Wednesday halted a process to certify Joe Biden as the next president. But his plea came in a now-removed video that was itself laced with disinformation, and he shared the message only after most of the mob had been pushed outside the building — leaving a trail of online and offline discord in his wake.
As the mob of Trump supporters stormed the House and Senate, their compatriots online celebrated the chaos, cheering the violence across a wide array of social media sites and calling for bloodshed in the days ahead.
The real-world violence forced lawmakers into a lockdown and raised new questions about whether social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have acted swiftly and aggressively enough to rein in the dangerous rhetoric from Trump and his allies at a critical juncture for the future of U.S. democracy.
Amid the onslaught of criticism, Facebook took the rare step of removing Trump’s video after hours of internal debate about the president’s actions, before blocking his account entirely. YouTube also removed the video, while Twitter similarly took aim at Trump throughout the day, flagging tweets that sent mixed messages about the events that had unfolded.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump said in a tweet since removed. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
The saga began in the morning, when Trump urged his followers to march to the Capitol at a rally during which his attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, earlier called for a “trial by combat.” Trump later took to social media to attack Vice President Pence for failing to overturn the results of the election on Trump’s behalf.
The president’s online and offline rhetoric ultimately emboldened a supportive mob later to breach the building, halting the House and Senate’s work and forcing Pence’s evacuation. The president soon returned to Twitter to encourage his supporters to stay “peaceful” — but he did not ask them to leave until he did so in a video uploaded to the site later in the afternoon.
“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement,” he tweeted. “They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
The president’s words also reverberated far beyond Twitter, where he boasts more than 88 million followers, and other more traditional social media platforms. Trump supporters on lesser-known sites have spent months egging on what they’ve called a “second civil war” against Democrats and the “deep state.” Many have boosted QAnon and other conspiracy theories suggesting that an uprising of covert military forces or civilian militias could help secure Trump’s presidency.
The storming of the Capitol on Wednesday led many of those accounts to celebrate — and call for further violence. As the jarring images of the rioting appeared on television, the pro-Trump forum TheDonald.win hosted an online “watch party,” with thousands providing commentary and sharing live-stream video links of the blitz.
“THIS IS WHY TRUMP CALLED US TO DC TODAY! STORM THE [expletive] CAPITOL!!!” said the top-voted comment from user RedWhiteBlue15. “You fight now or get thrown into a camp later. … They are going to take EVERYTHING FROM YOU INCLUDING YOUR HUMANITY!”
On Parler, a social media site popular with Trump supporters, some posters encouraged more violence.
“Disappointing. Pelosi, Schiff, Nadler, Schumer, Romney all got away,” wrote one poster. “DC is a target rich environment. Hope to see some of the DemonRat residences getting torched. Antifa knows how to do it. Learn from them.”
The episode marked Trump’s latest attempt to weaponize Twitter in the days after his defeat. Since Election Day, the president has attacked Biden, rejected his victory, floated widely disproved allegations about voter fraud and stirred his supporters to act. The antagonism — much of it meted out with few repercussions from social media companies — culminated in the dramatic confrontation Wednesday at the Capitol, which forced the District of Columbia to mandate a curfew and summon the National Guard.
It’s not the first time Trump’s social media activity has threatened to incite real-world violence. Seven months ago, for example, the president responded to racial justice demonstrations in Minneapolis by attacking those in attendance as “thugs” and predicting that looting might lead to “shooting.” That tweet prompted Twitter to discipline the president by blocking the tweet from view for essentially glorifying conflict. In the run-up to the election and its aftermath, the company covered up hundreds of tweets from high-profile accounts, including dozens from Trump.
Critics including Democratic lawmakers soon called on the company to suspend the president’s account, repeating their long-held belief that Silicon Valley should stop Trump from spreading harmful misinformation at viral scale. But Twitter at the time said its policies allow world leaders to share their views unfettered, a view the company has maintained even as Trump has intensified his rhetoric.
The company’s refusal to remove Trump on Wednesday prompted Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, to blast Trump for having “promoted sedition and incited violence.” He also called on Twitter and other social media companies to “suspend his accounts ASAP as they would do for anyone else advocating disinformation and promoting violence.”
On Wednesday alone, Twitter labeled eight of Trump’s tweets as in “dispute.” In the face of growing pressure, it escalated its response by blocking retweeting and liking of the labeled tweets, as well as the ability to reply to them. Twitter then outright blocked two of Trump’s tweets.
At Facebook, meanwhile, employees earlier in the day began pressuring company leaders to take action. They tagged Facebook executives in posts on the company’s internal chat system, asking for a statement from leadership and for the video to be taken down. “Do we really want Facebook to be a platform that enabled the second civil war,” an employee asked, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Several pro-Trump accounts on Twitter sought to blame the chaos on “antifa,” sharing baseless theories that followers of the far-left protest movement were “dressed as Trump supporters and causing havoc everywhere.” One message retweeted more than 3,000 times said, “Now who ACTUALLY wears all black and attacks law enforcement?? ANTIFA ACTORS!!! These are NOT Trump supporters attacking Capitol Police!!”
Other Twitter accounts that promote Trump and QAnon voiced glee over the Capitol breach. “Wow, this movie is getting better and better. My popcorn is running out already! I need more!” said one QAnon-backing account.
Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said the breach at the Capitol followed weeks of online agitating from Trump’s supporters who peddled the idea that they needed to “Stop the Steal” — and disrupt vote-tallying efforts nationwide.
“This is the consequence of calling for a very wild protest,” as Trump had tweeted last month, and “it’s going to lead to some serious harm,” she said.
Much of the online fury Wednesday centered on Vice President Pence, who some Trump supporters had hoped would deliver an implausible saving grace by refusing to certify Biden’s victory.
After Pence said he would not intervene, Lin Wood, the Trump-allied attorney who has pushed to overturn the election, tweeted a baseless allegation that Pence “is a TRAITOR, a Communist Sympathizer & a Child Molester. Lock him up.” The tweet, which has not been flagged by Twitter, has been retweeted 15,000 times.
QAnon believers also shared images and video clips of Trump supporters smashing glass and storming the police surrounding the Capitol. One well-known QAnon figure, a shirtless man known as the Q Shaman, could be seen in photos of the crowd inside the building after it had been breached.
On Parler, a site that prides itself for its lack of content moderation, the extremist group known as the Proud Boys celebrated the mayhem in Washington.
“Doesn’t look like they’re destroying the capital,” one user affiliated with the group wrote. “Looks like they’re liberating it. God bless America and all her patriots.”
Users on 4chan, another online message board popular among Trump supporters, similarly cheered the mobs that overtook the Capitol. Users there described the mayhem as the “American Revolution 2.0″ and threatened what they described as “tyrannical” Democrats and “traitors.”
“[I hope] they are all dragged outside and executed one by one in front of the camera, after being forced to admit their [sic] wrong doing for the world to see. Hanging is too good for demons,” read one post, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks right-wing extremism.
Craig Timberg contributed reporting.