A former Twitter employee interviewed by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack said Tuesday that their former employer was so pleased that President Donald Trump had chosen to make Twitter his go-to platform that the company was willing to ignore credible warnings about real-world violence inspired by his tweets.
Had any user other than Trump instigated violence in the same way, the employee said, Twitter would have removed them from the platform immediately.
The employee, whose identity is being protected by the committee — with their voice disguised in recordings played back publicly during Tuesday’s hearing — was described as a member of Twitter’s content moderation policy team throughout 2020 and 2021.
Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account on Jan. 8, 2021, though the employee said they had repeatedly warned company leaders about the potential for violence, including the evening prior to the insurrection. The employee said the top brass dismissed their pleas.
Twitter said in an email to Gizmodo: “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.” A spokesperson for the company said that while Twitter takes action against users inciting violence, it has found it difficult to predict violent outcomes prompted by ambiguous language.
Presenting the testimony, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said that Trump’s Dec. 19th tweet urging supporters to join him in Washington D.C. for a “big,” “wild” protest, “reverberated powerfully and pervasively online.”
After Trump told the violent far-right group the Proud Boy to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate in Sept. 2020, Twitter considered adopting a “stricter content moderation policy,” Raskin said, citing the former employee’s testimony. “But Twitter chose not to act.”
Below is a transcript of the anonymous employee’s interview as aired by the committee. It is clear from the presentation during the hearing, though, that not all of the interview was shared, and it is unclear at this time what else the employee might have said.
Employee: My concern was that the former president for seemingly the first time was speaking directly to extremist organizations, and giving them directives. We had not seen that sort of direct communication before and that concerned me.
Interviewer: So, just to clarify further, you were worried and others at Twitter were worried that the president might use your platform to speak directly to folks who might be incited to violence.
Employee: Yes. I believe that 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 within the social media ecosystem.
Interviewer: If President Trump were anyone else, would it have taken until Jan 8, 2021, for him to be suspended?
Employee: Absolutely not. If Donald — if former President Donald Trump were any other user on Twitter, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago.
“Despite these grave concerns, Trump remained on the platform completely unchecked. Then came the Dec. 19 tweet and everything it inspired,” Raskin said, playing another portion of the interview.
Employee: It felt as if, a mob was being organized, and they were gathering together their weaponry and their logic and their reasoning behind why they were prepared to fight. Prior to Dec 19, again, it was vague, it was nonspecific, but very clear that individuals were ready, willing and able to take up arms. After the tweet on Dec. 19, again, it became clear, not only were these individuals ready and willing but, the leader of their cause was asking them to join him in this cause and in fighting for this cause in D.C. on Jan. 6 as well.
On Dec. 19, 2020, Trump wrote, “Peter Navarro releases 36-page report alleging election fraud ‘more than sufficient’ to swing victory to Trump. A great report by Peter. Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
The employee said they were “shocked” by the replies to Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet, which made evident, they said, that his account was indeed inspiring threats of violence. The replies included users claiming they were “locked and loaded” and “ready for Civil War Part Two,” the employee said.
“I very much believe that Donald Trump posting this tweet on December 19th was essentially staking a flag in D.C. on Jan 6th for his supporters to come and rally,” the employee said.
Asked whether they were concerned at the time about the potential for the gathering becoming violent, they said, “Absolutely.”
Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s vice president of public policy, Americas, said in a statement that the company is “clear-eyed” about its role “in the broader information ecosystem” surrounding the insurrection. The company, she said, continues to examine ways in which it can “improve moving forward.”
“Leading up to and following the election, we deployed numerous policy and product interventions to protect the public conversation. We declared the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers violent extremist groups in 2018 and 2020 respectively, and permanently suspended accounts associated with the organizations under our violent organizations policy, as well as many of the organizers of the attack for violations of our policies,” Herrera-Flanigan said.
“On January 6th, we leveraged the systems we had built leading up to the election to respond to the unprecedented attack in real-time and are committed to iterating on this work in order to address violent extremism in the US and globally,” she added. Herrera-Flanigan added that Twitter’s engagement with the select committee is ongoing and remains “productive.”
“Today’s shocking whistleblower testimony confirms what many of us have known for years: Big Tech has repeatedly failed to rein in calls to violence on their platforms,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at the nonprofit Free Press.
Benavidez, whose group is among the many that have pressured Twitter and its competitors to clamp down on violent rhetoric for years, said the full testimony of the former Twitter employee should be released to the public.
Only then, she said, would the public “fully understand the company’s role in fomenting the kinds of violence that threatened to overthrow democracy in the United States and seat an authoritarian regime in its place.”