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Why the Jan. 6 committee’s focus on social media waned

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/17/2023 Cristiano Lima, Aaron Schaffer

Happy Tuesday — or should I say, five days until the next episode of “The Last of Us” airs! Send post-apocalyptic video game recommendations and news tips to: cristiano.lima@washpost.com.

Below: The European Commission plans to respond to Microsoft’s deal to buy Activision, and jury selection begins in a trial for Tesla and chief executive Elon Musk. First:

Why the Jan. 6 committee’s focus on social media waned

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), left, and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), right, were reluctant to dig into the role social media companies played in the attack on the Capitol, people familiar with the matter said. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/AP) © Jim Lo Scalzo/AP Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), left, and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), right, were reluctant to dig into the role social media companies played in the attack on the Capitol, people familiar with the matter said. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/AP)

When lawmakers created a special committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, they tasked the panel with looking into “how technology, including online platforms” may have “factored into the motivation, organization, and execution” of the insurrection.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), who chaired the committee, later said that two of the key questions they would seek to answer were “how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed” to the attack and what steps tech companies “took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds to radicalizing people to violence.”

But as the panel kicked the public phase of its probe into high gear, that focus seemingly faded: Social media’s role in the attack wasn’t the main focus of any of the committee’s 10 hearings nor any of the chapters in its 845-page final report

Here’s a look at why — and what the committee did not make public, based on the latest dispatch out this morning from Cat Zakrzewski, your host and Drew Harwell

Cheney, Lofgren said to have been reluctant to delve into the issue

Some members were reluctant to dig into the roots of domestic extremism taking hold in the Republican Party and concerned about the risks of a public battle with powerful tech companies, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the panel’s sensitive deliberations.

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the panel’s top Republican, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district is home to several tech giants, resisted efforts to look more deeply into the role social media companies’ policies and decisions played in the attack, our reporting found. 

The Washington Post previously reported that Cheney led efforts to keep the report focused on Donald Trump. At the time, Cheney spokesman Jeremy Adler said, “Donald Trump is the first president in American history to attempt to overturn an election and prevent the peaceful transfer of power. So, damn right, Liz is ‘prioritizing’ understanding what he did and how he did it.”

Lofgren denied that she opposed including a social media appendix in the report or more detail about what investigators learned in interviews with tech company employees.

“I spent substantial time editing the proposed report so it was directly cited to our evidence, instead of news articles and opinion pieces,” she said in a statement. “In the end, the social media findings were included into other parts of the report and appendixes, a decision made by the Chairman in consultation with the Committee.” 

Thompson did not return a request for comment.

Panel drafted a major memo, but it was pared down and never released

Committee staffers drafted a sprawling 122-page memo, viewed by The Post, detailing how the actions of roughly 15 social networks played a significant role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But the draft memo on the role of social media was repeatedly pared down, eventually to just a handful of pages, the people said. While the memo and the evidence it cited informed other parts of the committee’s work, including its public hearings and depositions, it ultimately was not included as a stand-alone chapter or appendix.

The memo shows congressional investigators found evidence that tech platforms, particularly Twitter, failed to heed their own employees’ warnings about violent rhetoric on their platforms and bent their rules to avoid penalizing conservatives, particularly Trump, out of fear of reprisals. 

Panel obtained tons of documents, but didn’t spotlight them

The staffers who focused on social media spent months sifting through tens of thousands of documents from multiple companies, interviewing more than a dozen social media company executives and former staffers, analyzing thousands of posts, and issuing subpoenas to social networks. Yet as the probe continued, the role of social media took a back seat. 

Committee staffers drafted more subpoenas for social media executives, including former Twitter executive Del Harvey, but Cheney never signed the subpoenas, two of the people said, and they were never sent. At one point, the committee discussed having a public hearing focused on social media, but none was scheduled, the people said.

Our top tabs

European Commission plans to warn Microsoft about Activision deal

The European Commission could send Microsoft the objections in the next few weeks. (Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg News) © Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg The European Commission could send Microsoft the objections in the next few weeks. (Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg News)

The European Commission is preparing a statement of objections to Microsoft’s $69 billion deal to buy the video game maker, Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee reports. The commission is not expected to be open to concessions that Microsoft could offer before the objections are sent, Reuters reports.

The Federal Trade Commission is trying to block the deal in court. The Competition and Markets Authority, the U.K. antitrust regulator, is investigating the deal.

Microsoft has said it will bring Activision’s Call of Duty video game franchise to the Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation, which are rivals to Microsoft’s Xbox platform. Microsoft told Reuters it is “continuing to work with the European Commission to address any marketplace concerns,” and its “goal is to bring more games to more people, and this deal will further that goal.”

Twitter has become toxic in its largest markets

The company’s deep cuts have affected staff in Brazil, India and other countries. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News) © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg The company’s deep cuts have affected staff in Brazil, India and other countries. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

Twitter’s deep staffing cuts have affected teams that work on misinformation and curation, which has changed the content that users in countries like India, Japan and Brazil are seeing, Gerry Shih, Michael Miller and Joseph Menn report. Teams monitoring entire countries have been largely or completely cut, leading to real-world impacts.

In Brazil, a surge of misinformation helped fuel attacks on government buildings. Moderation has also fallen off in India, which was a priority market for Twitter and has seen widespread misinformation on social media.

“The people who were in the U.S., because of their location, were primarily dealing with the U.S. Outside, we were taking on everything else,” said a former Twitter employee who worked on misinformation in the Asia-Pacific region. “There was already that neglect underlying in the company, and now it has been exacerbated.” 

Trial over Musk’s Tesla tweets begins today

The trial over Elon Musk’s tweets is scheduled to run through Feb. 1 (Al Drago/Bloomberg News) © Al Drago/Bloomberg The trial over Elon Musk’s tweets is scheduled to run through Feb. 1 (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

Jury selection begins today in San Francisco in a lawsuit over Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s 2018 tweets about taking Tesla private, the Associated Press’s Michael Liedtke reports. The plaintiff in the case argues that Musk’s tweets cost investors.

Musk last week failed to have the trial moved from San Francisco, where his lawyers argued that media coverage of his Twitter acquisition would influence jurors.

“The trial is likely to provide insights into Musk’s management style, given the witness list includes some of Tesla’s current and former top executives and board members, including luminaries such as Larry Ellison, Oracle co-founder, as well as James Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch,” Liedtke writes. “The drama also may shed light on Musk’s relationship with his brother, Kimbal, who is also on the list of potential witnesses who may be called during a trial scheduled to continue through Feb. 1.”

Rant and rave

Musician Nick Cave responded to a fan’s AI creation of “a song in the style of Nick Cave” in his newsletter. Writer, creative director and podcast host Jason P. Woodbury:

Musician Damon Krukowski:

Australian radio host Zan Rowe:

Workforce report

Judge says Twitter workers can't pursue group lawsuit (Axios)

Inside the industry

Taliban start buying blue ticks on Twitter (BBC News)

Labour vows to hand ‘weak’ Rishi Sunak first defeat over Online Safety Bill (The Independent)

Hill happenings

House Republicans move to regulate crypto industry with a new subcommittee (CNBC)

Trending

Tracking rising religious hatred in India, from half a world away (Pranshu Verma)

Daybook

  • FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel discusses U.S. leadership in 5G technology at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event today at 3 p.m.
  • NTIA Director Alan Davidson speaks at an event hosted by the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and Center on Privacy & Technology on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • Rosenworcel and Davidson speak at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 91st Winter Meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.

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