“There might be someone getting shot tomorrow.”
That was the warning from Twitter staff at an internal meeting on Jan. 5, 2021, the eve of the deadly attack on the US Capitol. It wasn’t the only stark warning Twitter management received ahead of the insurrection, according to two former Twitter employees who spoke to the House Jan. 6 Committee.
But now these witnesses, along with some committee staff, are frustrated, saying the committee failed to adequately hold major social media companies to account for the role they played in the worst attack on the Capitol in 200 years.
It was a “real missed opportunity,” Anika Collier Navaroli, a former Twitter employee turned whistleblower who gave evidence to the committee, told CNN in an interview last week. “I risked a lot to come forward and speak to the committee and to share the truth about these momentous occasions in history,” Navaroli said.
CNN spoke to half a dozen people who interacted with and were familiar with the Jan. 6 Committee’s so-called “purple team” – a group that included staff with expertise in extremism and online misinformation. Some witnesses and staff said the committee pulled its punches when it came to Big Tech, failing to include critical parts of the team’s work in its final report. The discontent has poured into public view, with an unpublished draft of the team’s findings leaked and obtained by multiple news organizations, including CNN.
One source familiar with the probe acknowledged that the committee obtained evidence that social media companies like Twitter largely ignored concerns that were raised internally prior to Jan. 6, but while those platforms should have done something at the time, the panel was limited in its ability to hold them accountable. A lawyer who worked on the committee said the panel did its job and focused on the unique and malign role of then-President Donald Trump in an unprecedented attack on American democracy. They also said the final report outlines structural issues across social media and society that need to be studied further.
Disagreement about social media companies’ role in the Jan. 6 attack comes as 2023 looks to be a pivotal year for Silicon Valley firms in Washington, DC. Spurred in part by the release of Elon Musk’s so-called “Twitter Files,” House Republicans are set to investigate purported Big Tech censorship, particularly as it pertains to social media companies’ handling of a 2020 New York Post story about Hunter Biden and his laptop. Facebook parent company Meta’s high-stakes decision Wednesday to reinstate Trump on its platforms is also expected to stoke further scrutiny of tech companies’ influence in elections. At the Supreme Court, justices are set to rule this year on a case that could strip key protections afforded to tech companies moderating online speech.
A missed opportunity
It isn’t just Navaroli who has taken issue with the committee’s findings. Three of the committee’s own staff members, part of the so-called purple team, published an article earlier this month, sharply criticizing the decisions made by social media companies in the lead up to the attack.
The final report’s “emphasis on Trump meant important context was left on the cutting room floor,” they wrote.
“Indeed, the lack of an official Committee report chapter or appendix dedicated exclusively to these matters does not mean our investigation exonerated social media companies for their failure to confront violent rhetoric,” they wrote.
In wake of the decision, CNN has reviewed thousands of pages of deposition transcripts and other supporting documents the committee has publicly released that provide insight into Silicon Valley’s action and inaction in the critical period between Election Day 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021.
Navaroli, who worked on Twitter’s safety policy team, told the committee she had repeatedly warned Twitter’s leadership in the lead-up to Jan. 6 about the dangers of not cracking down on what she said was violent rhetoric.
Navaroli pointed to Trump’s infamous “stand back and stand by” message to the Proud Boys at the first 2020 presidential debate as one instance that incited more violent rhetoric on Twitter.
Navaroli initially appeared before the committee as an anonymous whistleblower. Part of her testimony was played during the public committee hearings last summer, with her voice distorted to protect her identity. However, she later decided to go public, testifying before the committee for a second time, and speaking to The Washington Post.
In an interview with CNN, Navaroli said she is speaking out now because she believes it is important for the “truth to be on the record.” She warned that without a full reckoning of social media’s role in the Capitol attack, political violence could once again ignite in the United States and elsewhere around the world, pointing to recent unrest in Brazil where supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the country’s top government offices.
The final report from the Jan. 6 Committee stated, “Social media played a prominent role in amplifying erroneous claims of election fraud.”
But a far more blistering assessment was laid out in an unpublished draft document prepared by committee staff that was obtained by several news organizations, including CNN. Its key findings included:
- “Social media platforms delayed response to the rise of far-right extremism—and President Trump’s incitement of his supporters—helped to facilitate the attack on January 6th.”
- “Fear of reprisal and accusations of censorship from the political right compromised policy, process, and decision-making.”
- “Twitter failed to take actions that could have prevented the spread of incitement to violence after the election.”
- “Facebook did not fail to grapple with election delegitimization after the election so much as it did not even try.”
Tech companies would broadly dispute these findings and have repeatedly said they are working to keep their platforms safe.
Twitter’s previous management repeatedly outlined steps it said it was taking to crack down on hateful and violent rhetoric on its platform prior to Jan. 6, 2021, but stressed it didn’t want to unnecessarily limit free expression. Under Musk’s leadership, Twitter no longer has a responsive communications team, and the company did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook parent company Meta, pointed to an earlier statement from the company where it said it was cooperating with the committee.
Jacob Glick, an investigative counsel who conducted multiple depositions for the Jan. 6 Committee, including Navaroli’s, told CNN he believes the committee did its job to show “the American public the dangers posed by President Trump’s multilayered attack on our democracy.”
He said the lack of awareness he believes tech companies have shown about their role in the attack was “stark.”
“I don’t think social media companies recognize they were dealing with a sustained threat to American democracy,” he said.
Glick, who now works at the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said the purple team’s report had not been fact-checked, contains some errors, and should not have been leaked.
Another source familiar with the committee’s work told CNN, “It couldn’t be clearer that Trump was at the center of this plot to overturn the election. Not everything staff worked on could fit into this extensive report and hearings, including some who wanted their work to be the center of the investigation.”
Culture wars and content moderation
How social media platforms write and enforce their rules has become a central and ongoing debate, raising the key question of what power the companies should wield when it comes to politicians like Trump.
While some, including Navaroli, insist Trump repeatedly broke social media platforms’ rules by inciting violent rhetoric that should have resulted in his removal before Jan. 6, others including Musk and Twitter’s previous management, argue that what politicians say should be made available to as many people as possible so they can be held to account.
Meta and Twitter have both reversed their bans on Trump.
“We’re moving backwards and it’s concerning to me,” Navaroli said of the return of prominent election conspiracy theorists to major tech platforms. “History has taught us what happens when political speech on social media companies is allowed to fester unchecked.”