Facebook, Google and Twitter are staring down the prospect of harsh new regulations in Washington, as politically ascendant Democrats in Congress pledge to take fresh aim at Silicon Valley for its role in stoking the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol this week.
The violent mob that stormed the House and Senate, leaving the two chambers in lockdown, has emboldened party lawmakers who say that social media sites failed to heed their repeated warnings - and then did too little, too late, in response to President Donald Trump and his incendiary online rhetoric. Trump on Friday resumed tweeting, praising his supporters as “great American patriots” and pledging they would not be “disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
In the months to come, some Democrats now are promising to use their powerful new perches - and their control of the White House and Congress starting in a matter of days - to proffer the sort of tough new laws and other punishments that tech giants have successfully fended off for years. Their seething anger could result in major repercussions for the industry, opening the door for a wide array of policy changes that could hold Facebook, Google and Twitter newly liable for their missteps.
“They bear major responsibility for ignoring repeated red flags and demands for fixes,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who stands to play a key role leading a tech-focused congressional panel in the coming months. The lawmaker faulted Facebook, Google and Twitter for failing to act as the riots unfolded “until well after there was blood and glass in the halls of the Capitol.”
“They have done enduring damage to their own credibility,” Blumenthal added in an interview, “and these events will renew and refocus the need for Congress to reform big tech.”
The visceral reaction in Washington followed a riot that left lawmakers and staff members cowering for cover as bands of Trump supporters vandalized one of the three branches of American democracy. Members of Congress have feared for years that Trump’s vitriolic online rhetoric threatened to carry catastrophic consequences, only to live the experience personally in the waning days of his presidency.
Facebook has since suspended Trump’s account indefinitely, and Twitter blocked him from posting for 12 hours, a suspension that lifted Thursday morning. Google, which owns YouTube, joined the other tech giants in announcing policies that resulted in the removal of one of Trump’s earlier videos that repeated falsehoods about the 2020 election even as the president urged rioters at the time to remain calm. The companies before this week also had pledged to take more aggressive action to crack down against harmful content and the groups, such as the far-right Proud Boys, that helped perpetuate it.
Some Democrats said they supported the tech giants’ enforcement efforts - but still criticized the industry’s actions as too late and hollow. Members of Congress pointed out that Facebook, Google and Twitter had failed to take more aggressive action against Trump as soon as he started attacking the results of the 2020 presidential election, a series of falsehoods that served as calls to action for far-right groups and other provocateurs.
“Facebook has finally taken the long-overdue step of blocking the president’s account - at least for the next 13 days - but I’m deeply frustrated that it took a group of domestic terrorists storming the Capitol before they were willing to do so,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, in a statement.
Thompson on Thursday also called on Twitter to ban Trump, hours before the president broke a nearly day-long silence to tweet a video acknowledging his departure soon from the White House.
“These corporations should announce a permanent ban of his accounts. Nothing short of that will meet this moment,” Thompson said.
On Friday, Twitter pointed to its public-interest policy, which generally codifies the company’s belief that world leaders should receive special treatment so that they may communicate with their citizens unfettered — except in cases where the “risk of harm” is high. “We will keep the public informed, including any further escalation in our enforcement approach,” spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said in a statement.
Facebook declined comment, and Google did not respond to a request.
Even before Trump’s supporters arrived in Washington, many Democratic lawmakers had turned a critical eye to the power and reach of some of the Web’s most popular platforms. In recent years, party lawmakers have called for a bevy of new social media regulations, targeting everything from the tech industry’s data collection practices to the way it moderates content across the Web.
A 16-month investigation into Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google led House lawmakers to conclude this fall that the four tech giants posed major antitrust concerns - and prompted Democrats to call on Congress to adopt sweeping changes that would empower the U.S. government to bring more aggressive cases. Others have trained their sights on more specific portions of law, such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which spares a wide array of digital services from being held liable for the content posted by their users.
Democrats increasingly have come to see the decades-old protections as too lenient on social media giants, allowing Facebook, Twitter and other companies to skirt accountability for failing to crack down on harmful content, including election misinformation, incitements to violence and hate speech. Republicans share a growing skepticism about Section 230, though GOP lawmakers - led by Trump - have focused their attention instead on penalizing Silicon Valley over unproven allegations of political bias.
“There was already a powerful movement to reform Section 230,” said Blumenthal, who has put forward a proposal to reform the law and said the “insurrection” at the Capitol this week would add to their momentum.
In a sign of the scrutiny to come, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., chairman of the tech-focused House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement his panel is “actively exploring ways to motivate all social media platforms to address disinformation, extremism, and other online abuses.”
“The events of the last few days have only driven home how important and consequential it is that we all take this seriously,” Pallone, D-N.J., added.
The party’s digital agenda gained an even greater political boost after it emerged victorious in two special Senate elections earlier this week, which sent two more Democrats to the chamber - and solidified their control over both houses of Congress. Biden, meanwhile, has said he shares Democratic lawmakers’ desire to probe and regulate companies like Facebook, as well as potentially repealing Section 230.
The incoming president’s transition team declined to comment.
“I think we have to move very quickly,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which has grilled Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg over harmful content online. “Regulation of these tech companies in particular is a national security issue… . It needs to be given prominence given what has happened.”
Tech companies including Facebook say they support limited regulation — and the social-networking giant’s leader, Zuckerberg, even has expressed an openness to some changes to Section 230. But internet industry writ large spent more than $59 million over the past nine months in part to lobby Washington against adopting some of the most onerous changes to law on lawmakers’ radars, according to the latest federal ethics disclosures, signaling the tough fight perhaps still to come.
Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., who stands to inherit his chamber’s intelligence-focused panel, said he and his fellow Democratic leaders planned next to take a moment to let “tempers cool” after the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol cast an unexpected shadow over Biden’s official certification as president this week.
But he seemed to suggest any political detente might be short-lived.
“Relying on the good will of a handful of technology executives when thugs are rampaging through the Capitol,” he said, “is not a viable solution.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.