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House January 6 panel subpoenas social media companies after "inadequate responses"

CBS News logo CBS News 1/14/2022 Musadiq Bidar

The House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S Capitol is demanding four social media companies turn over internal records as it examines the spread of misinformation online and how violent extremists used social platforms to organize efforts to overthrow the 2020 election.

The committee sent subpoenas to Twitter, Reddit, Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube, and Meta, formerly known as Facebook, to immediately produce documents related to their investigation after "inadequate responses" to prior requests.

"Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps—if any—social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalizing people to violence," select committee chair Bennie Thompson said in a statement. "It's disappointing that after months of engagement, we still do not have the documents and information necessary to answer those basic questions. 

Former President Donald Trump posted on Twitter and Facebook during the riot, although he did not condemn the attack until several hours after it started. Two days after the riot, Twitter permanently banned Trump, citing "the risk of further incitement of violence." Facebook soon followed suit, although the Oversight Board has ordered the company to review the decision by 2023.

Then-President Donald Trump's Twitter and Facebook accounts were suspended following the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. / Credit: Photo Illustration by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images © Provided by CBS News Then-President Donald Trump's Twitter and Facebook accounts were suspended following the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. / Credit: Photo Illustration by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In a letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Thompson mentioned the company's Civic Integrity team, whose mission was to counter election misinformation but was disbanded before the January 6 attack.

"Facebook disbanded the Civic Integrity team that had focused on risks to election including misinformation, and reduced the application of tools used to restrain the spread of violent content," Thompson writes, adding, "despite repeated and specific requests for documents to these matters, the Select Committee still has not received these materials."

It's a change of tune for the chairman of the committee, who said in an October interview on "Face the Nation" that "at this point, Facebook is working with us to provide the necessary information we requested."

In a statement to CBS News, Meta spokesperson Nkechi Nneji said Facebook is cooperating. "Meta has produced documents to the committee on a schedule committee staff requested — and we will continue to do so," Nneji said.

The Select Committee wants Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, to turn over records about how it developed, implemented and reviewed its content moderation and other policies that may have affected the events on January 6th.


Video: Lawmakers Remember Jan. 6 Capitol Attack (CBS Pittsburgh)

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In a letter to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Thompson writes that the company has "significant undisclosed information" critical to the committee's investigation.

"YouTube was a platform for significant communications by its users that were relevant to the planning and execution of the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol," Thompson writes in his letter to Pichai.

Thompson also said Steve Bannon, who once served as chief strategist for Trump and spread lies that the results of the 2020 election were illegitimate, live-streamed his podcasts on YouTube in the days before and after the attack on the Capitol.

"To this day, YouTube is a platform on which user video spread misinformation about the election," Thompson writes.

Like Meta, Alphabet said it is cooperating with the committee, and reiterated that it has "strict policies prohibiting content that incites violence or undermines trust in elections" on both Google and YouTube. 

"We remain vigilant and are committed to protecting our platforms from abuse," an Alphabet spokesperson told CBS News.

Twitter, which declined to comment for this story, was also scolded by Thompson for allegedly allowing high-profile accounts to use the platform "for communications amplifying allegations of election fraud." Thompson said Twitter has not produced documents relating to warnings the company received that its platform was being used to plan or incite violence on January 6, 2021.  

"Twitter has failed to produce any documents that fully explain either its decision to suspend President Trump's account on January 8, 2021, or any other decisions the company made regarding President Trump's account relating to the events of January 6th," Thompson wrote in a letter to Twitter's new CEO Parag Agarwal.

A spokesperson for Reddit confirmed to CBS News that the company has "received the subpoena and will continue to work with the committee on their requests."

Thompson wrote to Reddit CEO Steven Huffman that the "subreddit" community "r/The_Donald" grew significantly on Reddit, adding that the users of the group discussed, and planned actions related to the January 6 attack.

In August, the select committee sent requests for records to 15 social media companies and set a two-week deadline for the companies to respond.

Thompson said Wednesday the committee has issued about 85 subpoenas, including Trump's allies, former White House officials, campaign aides and individuals involved in the planning of the rally outside the White House before the Capitol building came under siege. Two top Trump allies, Bannon and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, have been held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas, and the Justice Department has charged Bannon. Both said they are following instructions from Trump, who has claimed executive privilege. 

The House select committee, created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this year, is investigating the January 6 attack, when thousands of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol as Congress counted the electoral votes, a largely ceremonial final step affirming Mr. Biden's victory. Lawmakers were sent fleeing amid the riot, which led to the deaths of five people and the arrests of hundreds more. Trump, who encouraged his supporters to "walk over" to the Capitol during the Stop the Steal rally, was impeached by the House one week later for inciting the riot but was later acquitted by the Senate.

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