Mainstream social media firms are cracking down on far-right networks and campaigns on their platforms after the FBI warned Donald Trump supporters are planning armed protests around Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Facebook and Twitter have suspended and removed accounts and content they fear could fuel civil uprising in the days ahead of Mr Biden’s swearing-in on 20 January.
The US National Guard has been authorised to send up to 15,000 troops to Washington ahead of planned protests in the US capital, in the wake of the Capitol Hill riots last week that caused the death of five people.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other major social networks have been heavily criticised for their failure to prevent their platforms from amplifying previously fringe conspiracy theories and disinformation to millions of users.
QAnon-dedicated accounts suspended
Twitter announced it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts primarily dedicated to sharing content linked to far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, supporters of which the FBI has categorised as “domestic extremists”.
QAnon supporters believe a secret society of paedophiles run by high-profile celebrities and government officials is plotting against US President Donald Trump, who they say is leading a covert crackdown on the group.
The accounts had shared “harmful QAnon-associated content” at a significant scale and were primarily dedicated to the propagation of the conspiracy across the platform, Twitter confirmed.
“Given the violent events in Washington, DC, and increased risk of harm, we began permanently suspending thousands of accounts that were primarily dedicated to sharing QAnon content on Friday afternoon,” the company said.
Twitter said it will continue to monitor accounts and their activity ahead of the inauguration, using a combination of AI detection technology and human review teams to track tweets that could incite violence, organise attacks or share disinformation linked to the outcome last November’s US election.
‘Stop the Steal’ Posts, pages and groups taken down
Facebook said it was working to remove content containing the phrase “stop the steal”, the online campaign backing Mr Trump’s assertion the Democrats stole the Presidency from the Republicans, an assertion Mr Trump himself has repeatedly made, despite a lack of evidence.
Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, and Monika Bickert, vice president of global policy management, said the company was treating the next two weeks as a “major civic event”, and has taken down pages, groups and events using the phrase across Facebook and related content on Instagram.
“We’ve been allowing robust conversations related to the election outcome and that will continue,” the pair said.
“But with continued attempts to organize events against the outcome of the US presidential election that can lead to violence, and use of the term by those involved in Wednesday’s violence in DC, we’re taking this additional step in the lead up to the inauguration.”
Facebook declined to confirm exactly how many posts it had removed but said it was “a significant number” to date.
European criticism over Trump’s Twitter silencing
Twitter’s recent decision to permanently ban Mr Trump from its platform has been criticised by European leaders over its implications for the future of freedom of speech.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the ban “problematic” on Monday, adding that the German government was convinced that social media companies bore a “very high level of responsibility” for ensuring that political communication is not poisoned by hatred, lies or incitement to violence.
“The fundamental right [of freedom of expression] can be interfered with, but along the lines of the law and within the framework defined by the lawmakers. Not according to the decision of the management of social media platforms,” government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said.
Bruno Le Maire, France’s Finance Minister, said he had been shocked by Twitter’s decision to close Mr Trump’s account, adding: “The regulation of the digital world cannot be done by the digital oligarchy”.