As federal investigators begin to launch criminal cases against some of the perpetrators of the violence, a growing chorus of advocates and lawmakers say tech companies bear some responsibility, too.



The plans to storm the Capitol were in plain sight on social media, so could social media companies be held legally responsible? NPR's Bobby Allyn takes a look at one social network popular with the far-right.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Before the insurrection attempt on the Capitol, social media site Gab was lighting up about it. Some of the plans began to get very specific.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: There were directions provided on Gab for which streets to take to avoid the police and which tools to use to help pry open the doors.

ALLYN: Jonathan Greenblatt leads the Anti-Defamation League. As federal investigators probe the people behind the attack, Greenblatt says online platforms should bear some responsibility, too, in particular, Gab.

GREENBLATT: We need to ascertain right here, right now whether this specific platform was knowingly facilitating an attack in our nation's capital, literally a terror act against the seat of our government.

ALLYN: Gab is like an anti-Twitter, popular with Trump supporters. It's where far-right provocateurs who've been banned from Facebook and Twitter go. It has a history of embracing hate. The man who walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and killed 11 people had earlier posted anti-Semitic messages on Gab. On the day of the attack on the Capitol, Gab CEO Andrew Torba posted, quote, "in a system with rigged elections, there are no longer any viable political solutions." In an interview with NPR, Torba says nobody is going to make him take down messages on Gab. He sees that as censoring free speech, and he says new users are now flocking to the site.

ANDREW TORBA: Up until last week, our site only had about a million and a half, although this is growing rapidly now by millions.

ALLYN: Gab's traffic is up 800%. Torba says he's had to order more servers just to handle the new surge in popularity. As for the Anti-Defamation League's call that Gab be investigated by federal authorities, Torba says the site isn't doing anything wrong.

TORBA: We work with law enforcement to remove illegal activity from our site, so if people have politically incorrect opinions, the ADL is just going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

ALLYN: Researchers say sites like Gab did help boost turnout for the march on the Capitol which led to the insurrection attempt. But so did the big platforms. Many who showed up heard about it first on Facebook and Twitter. It was promoted with the hashtags #StopTheSteal and #FightForTrump. Here's the thing, though. Tech companies can't be sued for leaving a post up or taking a post down. But what about being criminally prosecuted for the violence that follows?

ORIN KERR: It's hard to imagine.

ALLYN: Orin Kerr is a former federal prosecutor who's now a Berkeley professor focused on cybercrime. He says to prove that the social media companies were, say, aiding and abetting in the violence, it wouldn't be enough that the platforms knew it might happen. Prosecutors would need to show that the companies had clear intentions.

KERR: You actually have to have in your mind that goal, yeah, I want to bring that crime about. And when we're talking about these big companies providing the platforms to hundreds of millions or billions of users, that's not what those companies are about.

ALLYN: Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, says if you create something dangerous, knowing it can cause harm, usually you can be held liable. But federal law protects tech companies from civil lawsuits and makes it nearly impossible to criminally prosecute them, which is frustrating, Calo says, because Facebook, Twitter and smaller sites like Gab were repeatedly warned that online disinformation could result in offline violence.

RYAN CALO: I'm very disappointed. I don't believe that they're shocked, and I think they have culpability.

ALLYN: But being morally wrong, Calo says, isn't the same as saying something is a federal crime. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

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