A former Twitter employee told the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that the company gave former president Donald Trump more lenient treatment because it enjoyed the “power” his stature lent to the social network.
Trump had 88 million followers when Twitter “permanently suspended” him two days after the riot, citing fears he could incite further violence. But the suspension followed years of calls to ban his account due to tweets that featured harassment, conspiracy theories and viral lies.
The former Twitter employee said the company considered adopting a stricter content-moderation policy after Trump, at a September 2020 presidential debate, told the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
“My concern was that the former president, for seemingly the first time, was speaking directly to extremist organizations and giving them directives. We had not seen that sort of direct communication before, and that concerned me,” the former employee said.
But Twitter, the former employee said, ultimately decided against the change, allowing Trump to continue to tweet without restriction. Many of those tweets — including one in December 2020 in which he wrote, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” — were regarded by pro-Trump supporters as calls to war, the committee said.
“Twitter relished in the knowledge that they were also the favorite and most-used service of the former president and enjoyed having that sort of power within the social media ecosystem,” the employee said. If Trump had been “any other user on Twitter, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago.”
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said the former employee had worked on a team responsible for platform and content-moderation policies in 2020 and 2021. The person was not named and their voice was cloaked with voice-modulating software.
Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s vice president of public policy for the Americas, said in a statement that the company is “clear-eyed about our role in the broader information ecosystem” in regard to the Jan. 6 attack but that it “took unprecedented steps and invested significant resources to prepare for and respond to the threats that emerged” during the 2020 election.
The company, she said, has deployed “numerous policy and product interventions to protect the public conversation,” including declaring the Proud Boys a violent extremist group in 2018 and permanently suspending accounts related to the group and organizers of the Capitol siege.
But the former employee said they had pleaded with Twitter managers for months “attempting to raise the reality that … if we made no intervention into what I saw occurring, people were going to die.”
“And even as hard as I had tried to create one or implement one, there was nothing,” the former employee added. “We were at the whim, at the mercy of a violent crowd that was locked and loaded.”
The former Twitter employee said that, on the night before the riots, they had tried and failed to get the company to intervene by again flagging content from violent extremists on the site.
“When people are shooting each other tomorrow, I will try and rest in the knowledge that we tried,” the former Twitter employee said they wrote in an internal Slack message the night of Jan. 5, 2021. “I don’t know that I slept that night, to be honest with you. I was on pins and needles.”
The former employee’s attorneys, Alexis Ronickher and Debra S. Katz of the law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, in a statement Tuesday praised the committee for allowing their client to remain anonymous given the force of violent extremism.
The revelation inspired major anger among some tech advocates. Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, tweeted that the hearing showed that Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms were complicit in helping Trump supporters organize the bloody insurrection. Big Tech “enabled insurrectionists to plan their violence,” he tweeted.
In a later interview with The Washington Post, Robinson said social media companies’ decisions to shield Trump and other powerful leaders from enforcement after they had broken rules against problematic speech had led to real-world damage.
“That is a choice that these companies are making. They can explain it away saying there is newsworthiness to it but they are absolutely making a choice,” he said. “There is always going to be a reason or an excuse to it. But often times the reason or excuse is because they are looking for an easy out from actually doing the right thing. They are putting their hands on the scale of powerful people who create harm.”
Facebook came under similar criticism last year when it was revealed that it maintained a separate program that allowed Trump and others exemptions from the platform’s posting rules. Facebook’s own Oversight Board criticized the platform for downplaying the scope of the program until it was revealed by a trove of internal documents shared by a whistleblower to the Wall Street Journal.
Twitter insiders have argued that the company’s platform was only one way in which Trump amplified his rhetoric on a global stage. But Twitter was by far his most prominent: His Facebook account, which was also suspended after the Jan. 6 riots, has 34 million followers. His account on Truth Social, the fledgling Twitter clone he created after his ban, has about 3 million.
Trump’s 56,571 tweets between 2009 and 2021 were often retweeted hundreds of thousands of times. Trump tweeted 600 times during his first impeachment and, after losing the 2020 election, used the platform for weeks to spread false claims about how he was the victim of an international vote-stealing conspiracy.
The hearing Tuesday, which focused on how Trump had helped drive far-right groups to Washington before the riots, revealed that Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet had followed an “unhinged” meeting between White House attorneys and Trump acolytes.