Like many Americans, I am angry about last week’s attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol and would like answers to the many questions it raises. Although it is evident that the armed insurrection took place at the instigation of the President and his allies for the purpose of overturning the election and subverting our democracy, it remains unclear how it was organized and who provided the funding. I greatly look forward to the findings of investigators. The National Whistleblower Center will make whatever contribution it can to help achieve accountability and restore the rule of law. I will focus my comments here on a key whistleblower element to this story and refrain from commenting on impeachment and other matters outside the world of whistleblowing.
Certain individuals would prefer that there be no investigations, at least concerning their own role in producing the crisis. In an apparent effort to deflect, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg yesterday denied that her company had any significant role and brazenly argued that her website should be trusted above those of other social media companies. “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, and don’t have our standards, and don’t have our transparency,” she asserted.
Whistleblowers supported by the National Whistleblower Center challenge this type of comforting rhetoric, which Facebook also employed after it played a role in the anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka and mass murder by terrorists in New Zealand. Facebook is not transparent and simply cannot be trusted to limit the activities of extremist groups on its website. Whistleblowers have shown conclusively that the company’s algorithms and auto-generation features are assisting white supremacists and other extremist groups with networking and recruiting.
Although Facebook removed some U.S. extremist groups from its website this summer, many were still active on January 5, the eve of the rally. For example, the Red-State Secession Group used its Facebook platform that day to call for its supporters to come to Washington, D.C. and “use force to defend civilization.”
Facebook’s repeated failure to disclose to its shareholders the gravity of the problem of terrorist and hate group activity on its website, including its internal findings that its own policies are exacerbating the problem, is very likely to constitute fraudulent concealment in violation of federal securities law. The Securities and Exchange Commission should hold the company accountable by ruling on the pending whistleblower petition under the Dodd-Frank Act and imposing appropriate fines and penalties.
Addressing Facebook’s deceptions alone will not solve the threat to democracy posed by social media companies, however. Facebook’s and other companies’ advertising revenue is directly linked to engagement, and studies find that negative, primal emotions — fear, anger — produce the most engagement. Curtailing online incitement of violence without unduly infringing on free speech, however difficult, is now an urgent policy priority.
Obviously fearful of regulation aimed its very business model, Facebook has now banned President Trump until the transition of political power is complete. However, autocrats around the world (such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte) continue to use Facebook to disseminate misinformation and stir up anger and violence toward political opponents.
As the January 6 armed insurrection shows, this is a problem that we ignore at our peril. Organizing of violence by autocrats, terrorists and extremists on social media websites is now a clear and present danger to democracy that requires strong and decisive action worldwide.