January 6 panel targets social media companies with subpoenas after ‘inadequate responses’ to voluntary request

The subpoenas were sent to Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Youtube, Twitter and Reddit.

“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of disinformation and violent extremism has contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps — if any — have social media companies taken to prevent their platforms from being fertile ground for the spread of extremism,” said Democratic Representative Benny Thompson who chairs The commission’s statement to “violence”.

“It is disappointing that, after months of engagement, we still lack the necessary documentation and information to answer those basic questions,” he continued.

The panel wrote to Alphabet that it believed the company had “important undisclosed information necessary to investigate” how it modified its content and how these policies affected what was on the platform on January 6.

Although in his letter Thompson acknowledges that the commission and Alphabet have made “subsequent engagements” since the commission’s initial arrival in August, he wrote that Alphabet “has not demonstrated a commitment to promptly and voluntarily produce the requested documents.”

Thompson reports that Alphabet has yet to explain the decision-making process to remove former President Donald Trump’s YouTube account and whether the platform did anything with Trump’s account prior to January 6.

“In addition, Alphabet has not provided documentation regarding YouTube policy decisions that may have an impact on the planning, coordination and implementation” of the January 6 attack, the letter from the commission said. Specifically, the commission raises questions about how YouTube’s election disinformation content editing policy works.

As for Meta, the panel said Facebook’s parent company has yet to deliver key documents or respond to specific requests for information.

Thompson highlights in the letter that Meta has yet to explain to the committee why Facebook dissolved its Civic Integrity Team after the November 2020 elections.

“Despite repeated and specific requests for documentation relating to these matters, the select committee did not receive these materials,” Thompson said in his letter to Meta.

The committee also highlights that the Meta “failed to provide critical internal and external analysis conducted by the company regarding disinformation, disinformation and misinformation related to the 2020 election, efforts to challenge or overturn the election, and the use of the Meta by domestic violent extremists to influence the 2020 election.”

The committee adds: “Despite repeated follow-up requests set for September 28, 2021 and October 29, 2021, Meta has refused to commit to a deadline to produce or even specify these materials.”

In August, the commission sent requests to 15 social media companies, including those that received subpoenas on Thursday, in an effort to understand how there are disinformation and efforts to cancel elections by foreign and domestic actors on their platforms. The committee’s 14-section application requested a wide range of documents and information.

“The Select Committee requires that you submit the documents described in the attached schedule to your custody, control, or possession,” Thompson said in his letter to these companies over the summer.

At the time, the commission specifically requested data and analysis on domestic violent extremists linked to efforts to cancel the 2020 election, particularly around the time of the January 6 attack, and requested that the information be provided within two weeks.

In addition to requesting a paper trail of information, the select committee also asked these social media companies in August to provide information on how they attempted to tackle misinformation that was present on their platforms and where there might be loopholes in doing so.

In the days immediately following the attack on the US Capitol, major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter suspended the accounts of influential promoters of electoral conspiracy theories – including Trump himself. A number of those in the mob were white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and members of right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys.

But since the attack, many questions have been raised about whether social media companies can do more to stop the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

This story was updated with additional developments on Thursday.

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