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Sheryl Sandberg Downplayed Facebook’s Role In The Capitol Hill Siege

Justice Department Files Tell A Very Different Story

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Just after the Capitol Hill riots on January 6, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer admitted the company’s ability to enforce its own rules was “never perfect.” About the shocking events of the day, she added:


“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,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, shortly after the Capitol Hill riots on January 6.

Sandberg was later criticized for downplaying her employer’s role as a platform for the organizers of the siege. But Facebook was far and away the most cited social media site in charging documents the Justice Department filed against members of the Capitol Hill mob, providing further evidence that Sandberg was, perhaps, mistaken in her claim. Facebook, however, claims that the documents show the social media company has been especially forthcoming in assisting law enforcement in investigating users who breached the Capitol.


Forbes reviewed data from the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University, which has collated a list of more than 200 charging documents filed in relation to the siege. In total, the charging documents refer to 223 individuals in the Capitol Hill riot investigation. Of those documents, 73 reference Facebook. That’s far more references than other social networks. YouTube was the second most-referenced on 24. Instagram, a Facebook-owned company, was next on 20. Parler, the app that pledged protection for free speech rights and garnered a large far-right userbase, was mentioned in just eight.


The references are a mix of public posts and private messages sent on each platform, discussing plans to go to the Stop the Steal march, some containing threats of violence, as well as images, videos and livestreams from the breach of the Capitol building.


Livestreaming Crime on Facebook


Whilst the data doesn’t show definitively what app was the most popular amongst rioters, it does strongly indicate Facebook was rioters’ the preferred platform. Previously, Forbes had reported on cases where Facebook users had publicly posted their intention to attend the riots. One included the image of a bullet with the caption, “By Bullet or Ballot, Restoration of the Republic is Coming.”


The man who posted the image was later arrested after posting images of himself at the Capitol on January 6, according to investigators. In other cases, the FBI found Facebook users had livestreamed their attack on the building. As the Washington Post previously reported, the #StopTheSteal hashtag was seen across Facebook in the days around January 6, with 128,000 users talking about it, according to data provided by Eric Feinberg, a vice president with the Coalition for a Safer Web.


In various cases, the accused used a mix of social media sites to promote their involvement in the riot. For instance, in charges filed on January 27, an alleged member of the Oath Keepers militia, Thomas Caldwell, was found to have posted on Facebook from the riot, noting in one post: “We are surging forward. Doors breached.” Meanwhile, a fellow Oath Keeper, Jessica Watkins, wrote on Parler: “Me before forcing entry into the Capitol Building. #stopthesteal2 #stormthecapitol #oathkeepers #ohiomilitia.” (Caldwell, a Navy veteran, told a court in January that “every single charge is false,” according to Reuters. Watkins told a judge she understood the charges against her, but “I don’t understand how I got them”.)


A Facebook spokesperson told Forbes the company was providing data to law enforcement on those present at the riot and was removing accounts of those who were involved in the storming of the Capitol. The spokesperson also noted that prior to the mob attack, as of November 30, Facebook had removed about 3,200 Pages, 18,800 groups, 100 events, 23,300 Facebook profiles and 7,400 Instagram accounts for violating its policy against militarized social movements. The policy was launched in August.


“We are continuing our ongoing, proactive outreach to law enforcement and have worked to quickly provide responses to valid legal requests. We are removing content, disabling accounts and working with law enforcement to protect against direct threats to public safety."

As Forbes reported in January, Facebook has been preserving rioters’ data, including their private messages, so that it can be handed to law enforcement when they make a legal request. Facebook isn’t alone in helping law enforcement in gathering information on suspects. Other platforms and technology companies, from Apple and Google to Parler, have been furnishing the feds with data on users who were at the riots.

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