A widespread crackdown by tech companies to ban social media companies who allow users to post violent rhetoric to their platforms is causing a headache for law enforcement agencies who rely on those same posts to thwart crimes and bring charges.
Outages at Parler and Gab — two social media companies that clone basic features found on Twitter and Reddit, respectively — coupled with decisions by Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube to curb violent rhetoric posted by users of their platforms have left federal and local police in the dark about individuals and groups who may be plotting violence against different targets in the days leading up to President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.
“I understand why [tech companies] did it,” a federal law enforcement source told The Desk early Sunday morning. “But we’re very much in the dark now.”
For years, the biggest social tech companies — Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube — were criticized for not doing enough to stifle Donald Trump, who repeatedly posted a mixture of false news with racist, violent and misogynistic comments that more than once violated the acceptable content policies of these platforms.
More than once, the social companies acknowledged a struggle to strike a balance between free speech and safety. They appeared, especially with Trump, to err on the side of free speech, despite concerns that the content posted by the president and his supporters could lead to violence against journalists, minorities and other lawmakers.
Those concerns were fully realized on January 6 when hundreds of Trump supporters, fueled by his comments at a rally earlier in the day, violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. Five people, including a police officer, died in the attack.
Almost immediately, technology companies were blamed: Social media services were accused of providing Trump and his supporters a platform to spread their violent, often-debunked conspiracies. Others were accused of providing services to startups like Parler and Gab, which helped them lay the foundation of a new type of lawless, anything-goes platform.
In the days that followed, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube restricted Trump’s ability to post new content to their websites. Facebook said the suspension would last through this week. YouTube did not give a timeline on how long Trump would be unable to post videos there.
Twitter went one step further, suspending Trump’s personal account and those of his re-election campaign and associates. It isn’t clear if those accounts will ever return. A few days after the suspensions, Twitter deleted more than 70,000 accounts affiliated with the far-right conspiracy group QAnon.
Parler was taken offline after Amazon announced it would no longer allow the company to use its cloud computing services, which powered the backbone of the far-right Twitter clone. Parler sued Amazon a short time later; the company’s CEO has offered conflicting information on whether Parler will be able to return to the Internet.
With social media websites cracking down and Parler being knocked offline, users have flocked to Gab — a Reddit clone — as one of the last safe havens for their problematic content. Unable to accommodate a flood of users, Gab has experienced significant technical difficulties in recent days, with the website being mostly unavailable.
While, taken together, these moves may seem like the obvious thing to do in order to restore a sense of calm and rationality, law enforcement officials say they’re creating additional problems for them as they work to prevent future violence like the situation that played out at the Capitol earlier this month.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that we use social media [posts] to investigate crimes,” a federal law enforcement source, who agreed to speak with The Desk on condition of anonymity, said during an interview Sunday morning. “You’d be surprised — well, maybe you wouldn’t be — how many people volunteer information online.”
Before getting a search warrant or making an arrest, a police officer needs probable cause. This is true as well for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against an individual or group. More often than not, police and prosecutors use digital breadcrumbs — including social media posts — to bolster their case.
Social media posts have already been credited with helping to identify dozens of people who participated in the Capitol attack. Some uploaded photos to Twitter, Instagram, Parler and Snapchat during the riot; others were identified from media posted to the Internet days or weeks before the siege.
Digital breadcrumbs have also led to probes against police officers. At least a dozen Capitol Police officers are under investigation for their behavior during the attack, including one officer who took a photograph with a rioter as captured in several viral videos.
Other agencies across the country have also launched investigations against their officers, including the police department in Seattle, where several officers were proven to be in Washington at the time of the attack. In Sacramento, three federal law enforcement employees are suspected of having ties to the January 6 rally; one employee, a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent, was fired earlier in the week after social media posts revealed he was at the Capitol during the siege.
#BREAKING: Three Sacramento-area federal employees are under investigation for traveling to Washington, D.C. to participate in the January 6 demonstration at the White House and U.S. Capitol, according to a reliable federal law enforcement source. (1/4)
— Matthew Keys (@MatthewKeysLive) January 17, 2021
Last week, a federal prosecutor in Washington predicted hundreds of criminal cases would be brought in response to the attack at the Capitol. Some will likely be open and shut — there were plenty of credentialed and citizen journalists alike taking video and photos both inside and outside the building during the riot. But others could be tossed if prosecutors can’t gather enough evidence to definitively identify someone and prove they participated in the riot.
“If you have someone who said, fuck Twitter, I’m not posting there anymore, I’m going to Parler, and we can’t access that material on Parler because it’s offline, that’s a problem,” the law enforcement source said.
Police have been working around this issue to the best of their ability: In the two weeks since the attack, federal police and prosecutors have applied for dozens of search warrants to sift through the contents of Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat accounts of people who were known or suspected to have participated in the attack, the source said.
“Obviously, it would be easier if we just had the posts, if we didn’t have to go that route,” the source complained. “[Search warrants] take time, and in that time, someone could be building a pipe bomb or planning the next attack, and that’s time that we don’t have.”
In addition to the search warrants, police are also combing cached versions of suspected social media profiles, using Google Cache, Microsoft Bing Cache and the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine as tools in their quest to bring more cases and size up the ones already brought. Federal investigators have also begun sifting through a giant cache of posts and digital metadata scrapped from Parler by cyber-security researchers before the website went offline. Those tools are helpful only to a limited extent.
“Not everything is saved by Google or the Internet Archive,” the source said. “And the Parler data — it’s helpful, we are generating leads from it, but we still have to prove the data is genuine, that it wasn’t modified before it was uploaded online.”
While bringing cases against the Capitol rioters is a top priority for federal investigations, they are also working to prevent future violence from occurring, especially in the lead up to the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden on Wednesday.
Almost immediately following the attack, Trump supporters began circulating a digital poster calling for similar, armed rallies at statehouses across the country. The posts gained momentum, prompting federal law enforcement officials to issue a bulletin last weekend warning of the possibility of armed protests this weekend.
The warning allowed governors across the country to mobilize state National Guard personnel to protect sensitive infrastructure. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom authorized the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to protect the state’s capitol in Sacramento and key buildings.
So far, large-scale protests like the ones described in social media posts before last week’s content crackdown have not materialized. But police are worried that de-platformed social media users may be organizing through underground means and are equally concerned about the possibility of lone-wolf domestic terrorists who might slip through the cracks.
Already, some of these concerns have been realized: This weekend, at least three people were arrested in Washington, including a man who was caught with unregistered ammunition and a woman who allegedly tried to impersonate a police officer.
“The usual channels have gone dark — they’re not available to us,” the source said. “Without information, we can’t adequately prepare. We don’t know what we don’t know.”