A former Twitter employee told the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection that the company considered imposing a stricter content moderation policy following a September 2020 comment by then-President Donald Trump telling the right-wing extremist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Trump’s comment to the Proud Boys came during a 2020 presidential debate, after Joe Biden called for Trump to condemn the group. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said, adding that, “somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing.”
The former Twitter (TWTR) employee, who was on the company’s content moderation team through 2020 and 2021, according to the committee, said their “concern was that the former President, for seemingly the first time, was speaking directly to extremist organizations and giving them directives,” according to an interview aired during the House committee hearing Tuesday. Twitter (TWTR) did not end up imposing the policy — the details of which were not shared during the hearing — following Trump’s comment, the employee said.
In their interview with the committee, the Twitter employee said that while the company was worried about Trump using the platform to talk to people who could incite violence, Twitter “relished in the knowledge that they were also the favorite and most used service of the former President and enjoyed having that sort of power.”
“If former President Donald Trump were any other user on Twitter, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago,” the employee said.
“We are clear-eyed about our role in the broader information ecosystem in regards to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, and while we continue to examine how we can improve moving forward, the fact remains that we took unprecedented steps and invested significant resources to prepare for and respond to the threats that emerged during the 2020 US election,” Twitter Vice President of Public Policy for the Americas Jessica Herrera-Flanigan said in a statement, adding that the company is engaging directly with the House committee.
Herrera-Flanigan added that Twitter “deployed numerous policy and product interventions to protect the public conversation” before and after the 2020 election, and said that on January 6 the company “leveraged the systems we had built leading up to the election to respond to the unprecedented attack in real-time.”
Twitter designated the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers as violent extremist groups in July 2018 and September 2020, respectively, and says it has permanently suspended accounts associated with the groups in line with its policy prohibiting violent organizations, according to a company spokesperson. The spokesperson added that many of the groups and individuals responsible for organizing the January 6 insurrection had been suspended from Twitter prior to the attack.
Among its efforts following the 2020 election, Twitter’s teams began in December 2020 observing tweets about a large protest in Washington, DC, set for January 6, and started monitoring related content, taking action against election misinformation, references to “last stands” and few direct violent threats, according to the company.
As for Trump, after saying in 2019 it would place a disclaimer on tweets by world leaders that broke its rules but are in the “public interest,” Twitter began in May 2020 labeling some tweets by the then-President as “potentially misleading,” in an effort to provide context around his remarks. In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Twitter suspended and then permanently banned Trump’s account, citing a “risk of further incitement of violence.”
But in their testimony, the Twitter employee suggested the company should have done more ahead of the attack. On the night of January 5, 2021, the employee said they “sent a Slack message to someone that said something along the lines of, ‘when people are shooting each other tomorrow, I will try and rest in the knowledge that we tried.’ … I don’t know that I slept that night.”
The employee continued: “For months, I had been begging and anticipating and attempting to raise the reality that if … we made no intervention into what I saw occurring, people were going to die. And on January 5, I realized no intervention was coming, even as hard as I had tried to create one or implement one, there was nothing and we were at the whims and the mercy of a violent crowd that was locked and loaded.”