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Facebook bans ‘Stop the steal’ phrase, Twitter suspends over 70,000 accounts supporting QAnon

In the aftermath of the US Capitol storming last week, Facebook is now removing content with ‘Stop The Steal’ under its coordinating harm policy from Facebook and Instagram. Stop the Steal is a conservative movement that promotes the false claim that widespread electoral fraud was behind US President Donald Trump losing the election.

Meanwhile, Twitter has permanently suspended 70,000 accounts primarily dedicated to QAnon content since Friday afternoon. QAnon is a complex, but wildly popular conspiracy theory among the conservative American public that spreads misinformation around a “deep state” conspiracy against President Donald Trump, and promotes ideas that Satan-worshipping pedophiles secretly run the world. Twitter said many of the individuals affected ran multiple QAnon accounts, hence resulting in higher number of accounts removed.

The violence and storming of the US Capitol was promoted online on social media forums, where groups and individuals were known to be mobilising to gather in large numbers on January 6, when the electoral college vote count was scheduled for. Parler, Gab, Telegram and other alternative forums were also used to plan to storm the Capitol. Following the storming, Facebook and Twitter permanently suspended Donald Trump while Reddit booted pro-Trump subreddits. Apple and Google booted Parler from their app stores, while Amazon pulled the plug on the social media app’s cloud hosting service.

Facebook said it was prompted by “continued attempts to organize events” against Joe Biden’s victory that can lead to violence, and the use of “stop the steal” during the storming of the US Capitol. At the same, it’s worth noting that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said on Monday that the insurrection at the US Capitol last week was largely organised on other internet services and not Facebook. “We again took down QAnon, Proud Boys, Stop the Steal, anything that was talking about possible violence last week,” she said.

Facebook said its “Integrity Operations Center”, which was active during Georgia run-off elections and counting of electoral college votes, will operate until January 22 to “monitor and respond” to threats. On Biden’s inauguration on January 20, Facebook will add a live video of the inauguration to a news digest on Facebook News.

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Facebook said it is also introducing friction in how groups work: Group admins are increasingly required to review and approve posts before they go up; additionally, the company now automatically disables comments on group posts that have a high rate of hate speech or violence-inciting content.

Meanwhile, Parler has sued Amazon for removing the app from its Amazon Web Services’ cloud hosting service. The app has filed a complaint alleging that it was removed for political reasons, and and in an antitrust conspiracy to benefit Twitter.

Angela Merkel sceptical of social media ban on Trump

German chancellor Angela Merkel has reservations about the way President Donald Trump’s Twitter account was suspended, her spokesperson told Nikkei Asia. Merkel is concerned at the power Big Tech holds to shape public discourse.

“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” her spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters at a regular government news conference in Berlin on Monday. “Given that, the chancellor considers it problematic that the president’s accounts have been permanently suspended.”

In India, Tejasvi Surya, a politician from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party has cited the social media ban of Trump as an indication of the inordinate power of Big Tech companies. Stating that Twitter ban of Trump was a wake-up call to the the threat to democracies posed by “unregulated big tech companies”, he said it was important to review India’s regulation of intermediaries to rein in Big Tech.

Our take: Technology companies have finally acted on calls to violence on their platforms that could result in real-world violence. These actions are currently limited to the United States, where these companies are based and where they arguably face the most intense threat of being regulated. For instance, Trump was removed only in his outgoing week at President, and it took an attack on the US Capitol to act against conservative accounts online at scale. The events only reinforce the fact that the public is dependent on the benevolence of the platforms to support free speech or restrict dangerous speech. The decisions are made by the platforms, at their own whims, depending upon the political threat to the platforms.

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