When a mob of rioters overran barriers and broke into the Capitol on January 6, some of them boasted about their exploits on livestreams as thousands of followers watched in real time.
As they marched through hallways and ransacked lawmakers’ offices, they offered a play-by-play of their actions on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms as a transfixed nation watched. Other rioters turned to lesser-known streaming outlets such as DLive.
Now some livestream platforms are taking steps to crack down on such broadcasts after the assault on the Capitol and in anticipation of potential disruptions at President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Facebook plans to block “the creation of any new Facebook events” near the White House, the US Capitol and any state capitol buildings through Inauguration Day.
“We’re monitoring for signals of violence or other threats both in Washington, DC and across all 50 states,” the company said in a statement. “In the lead up to Inauguration Day, we have implemented a series of additional measures to continue preventing attempts to use our services for violence.”
YouTube says it has removed multiple videos shot during the assault on the Capitol that appeared to incite violence or show Capitol rioters carrying firearms. The company told CNN it will continue to remove livestreams and other content that violate its guidelines on hate, harassment and election integrity.
DLive has since announced additional measures and said it’s blocking all livestreams from the Washington, DC, area on Inauguration Day.
Some fear the Capitol livestreams could inspire further violence
Security experts fear extremists like the ones who invaded the Capitol may be motivated by widely shared images portraying that siege as a success.
The Capitol livestreams provided a platform to spread hate while encouraging those who film them to pander to their followers, said Pete Eliadis, a former law enforcement official and founder of Intelligence Consulting Partners.
Eliadis believes the streamers’ revealing their vantage point inside the Capitol also has broader national security ramifications.
“It’s being watched by state actors all over the world. … If I’m a bad actor, I know the layout of the Capitol … I can see the defenses, the police response and I can counter that now,” he told CNN. “That’s a huge challenge on a larger scale platform.”
Mob mentality and instant gratification also play a big role,he said.
“Individuals are filming this, they’re blasting it to their followers, their followers are picking it up and it’s bringing immediate feedback and instantaneous reward,” he said. “You’re seeing the impact of your filming, you’re getting that adrenaline rush, you’re almost pandering to your audience. “
That gives the “influencers” more incentive to frame the story through their own lenses, which leads to a dangerous form of power that “enhances the ideology and the movement,” Eliadis said.
Extremists can earn money from livestreams
Some streaming services offer opportunities for their users to make money.
For example, DLive allows users to buy “lemons,” a form of digital currency, using a credit card or cryptocurrency. Each lemon is worth $0.012, and users can donate lemons to a streamer, which can be converted into real money.
On DLive, users can host talk shows, stream their gaming sessions or stream other events in real time – and earn money doing it.
Some commenters watching on DLive called the Capitol assault a “second revolution” and awarded lemons to a handful of users who were streaming from in or around the building.
DLive later intervened, freezing those accounts and saying that lemons donated to those users would be returned to donors.
All streaming platforms have their own influencers who equate fame with money. To stand out, some users engage in a degree of acting – almost like they’re starring in their own movies – to earn revenue, said Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, which tracks disinformation and social media manipulation.
And most users will flock to platforms where they can monetize their content, Otis said. For extremists, that can mean smaller, fringe platforms which have less restrictive policies on content and advertise themselves as homes for “uncensored” speech, she said.
Some extremists have moved to more permissive corners of the internet
As platforms crack down on hate speech and incendiary content, extremist ideologies are finding new homes, says Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina and an expert on online extremism.
After the attack on the Capitol, some alternative livestream channels saw growth of up to 200% within hours, Squire told CNN.
“When they are removed from mainstream platforms, extremists and other bad actors will sometimes gravitate to lesser-known platforms in order to continue whatever behaviors got them banned in the first place,” Squire said. “Typically these behaviors include violent rhetoric, hate speech, trolling and harassment, and so on.”
For political extremists, one appeal of fringe or less tightly run platforms can be lax content oversight.
“There is always a risk that any platform that does not have good content moderation standards and strategies will be used by bad actors,” Squire said. “There are smaller platforms that do a great job of content moderation, and there are large platforms that do a terrible job. It’s less about the size than it is about how committed the platform is to enforcing its own standards of behavior.”
Even on smaller platforms such as DLive, extremists make up only a fraction of users.
DLive says the vast majority of its users focus on gaming, with less than 10% talking about current events or politics. And Squire said some DLive gamers are using the platform’s community chats to applaud the suspension of the Capitol rioters and express their frustration at being associated with White supremacists.