A mob of President Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building this afternoon, and the event was live-streamed. On YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, and more, you could get a view of protesters gathered outside — and eventually inside — of the US Capitol. In some cases, the streams were monetized through tipping features. In others, streamers encouraged viewers to donate to accounts on Patreon or GoFundMe.
The event presented a sudden and serious moderation challenge for YouTube and other platforms, particularly ones that allowed live streams. YouTube, Facebook, and other social media networks prepared for the 2020 elections in November by setting up policies around labeling and banning misinformation and calls for violence. As protests started this afternoon in Washington, DC, however, the platforms were once again asked to assess whether comments on and coverage of the protests were violating their policies in real time.
On YouTube, live streams of the mob illegally occupying the Capitol could be found by searching “Stop the Steal” and “Patriot Capitol’.’ While the platform surfaced authoritative feeds from various news sources, including ABC and The Washington Post, it wasn’t difficult to find pro-coup channels that were carrying feeds from a variety of other platforms, including Facebook and Twitch.
Within those more radical YouTube feeds, chat rooms reacted live to what they were seeing. Commenters posted things like “coup time” and “time to take it back, USA.” Others expressed bewilderment over the images playing out in the Capitol as people climbed walls, pushed their way through the police presence, and tried to break down doors.
Some streams asked for donations — which were made outside of YouTube, on platforms like PayPal. Monetization features like super chat and super stickers were seen on a couple of live streams viewed by The Verge, and a reporter saw ads playing on an RT live stream. YouTube’s rules say that videos and live streams must adhere to the site’s community guidelines in order to be monetized, and they state that videos inciting or encouraging violence and showing violent imagery are not allowed.
Teams at YouTube are “working to quickly remove livestreams and other content that violates our policies, including those against incitement to violence or regarding footage of graphic violence,” according to a spokesperson. Since the attack began, the site’s moderators have removed multiple streams that actively incite or encourage violence or show people carrying firearms.
YouTube does allow certain videos to remain up if they have proper news context, but that’s often judged on a case-by-case basis. On a number of videos that contain terms like “Stop the Steal” or “Patriots Capitol” in the title, YouTube has also included an information box that states “the electoral college has confirmed Joe Biden as president-elect.”
“We will remain vigilant in the coming hours,” the spokesperson said.
Outside of live streams, YouTube seemed to surface content from authoritative sources, like Bloomberg and NBC. However, searching YouTube for “Stop the Steal” streams using Google Chrome’s Incognito mode highlighted videos from RT and channels with names like “Agentsix1,” “The Truth,” and “Real News Live.” YouTube has changed its search algorithm to try to prevent this kind of borderline content — videos that aren’t prohibited, but contain disturbing or harmful subject matter — from surfacing as top results on the platform. It is unclear how effective that measure is in practice.
Coverage of the event was harder to find on Twitch. Though the site is built around live video, its search features make it somewhat difficult to find live coverage of political events, so users largely have to browse through the site’s categories to find relevant live broadcasts.
Most streams on Twitch were from people commenting from afar. Hundreds of people tuned in to watch the streamer HayliNic talk about what she was seeing on CNN’s broadcast of the event at the Capitol, and thousands were tuned into a stream from Hutch, who was chatting over live footage from C-SPAN. The popular political streamer HasanAbi had around 100,000 people watching him talk about the event while flipping between news coverage and aggregated views of various streamers from the protest.
Direct streams from DC were less popular. DylanBurnsTV had just under 1,000 people watching his stream while he was standing away from the protests; elsewhere, close to 900 people watched TouringNews’ coverage from within a crowd. Commenters on these streams tended to express their astonishment at what they were seeing, shocked at the protesters’ attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election.
Twitch said its moderation policies do not have exemptions for newsworthy content, so streams of the protests may still be removed if they violate existing policies around violence and threats. “We strongly condemn the violent protests at the Capitol today. Any content that incites or glorifies violence, or shows gore of any kind, is not allowed on Twitch,” a Twitch spokesperson told The Verge. They said the platform would “continue to monitor and remove any content that violates” its policies.
There didn’t appear to be any political labels or warning messages on Twitch streams pointing viewers to verified information, unlike platforms like YouTube and Twitter. Twitch has largely evaded the pressure faced by YouTube and other platforms in recent years, in part because its lengthy broadcasts can be harder to review and in part because the platform seems to take a more aggressive stance on moderating speech, rather than attempting to be a platform for anything and everything. Even President Trump was briefly banned in June for broadcasting “hateful” language.
Platforms used by the president soon found themselves grappling with another issue: a video from the president himself, in which he restated his lie that the election was stolen from him and told protesters “you have to go home now.”
Around 4:20PM ET, Trump posted the video to both Facebook and Twitter. Twitter labeled the tweet with a warning that his claims of fraud were disputed, and it deactivated most forms of engagement with the tweet “due to a risk of violence.” Around 6:30PM, Twitter removed the video completely saying it violated the platform’s rules.
Facebook initially added a far vaguer label that did not say Trump’s claims were wrong or disputed, allowing the post to quickly gain tens of thousands of shares, comments, and likes. Around an hour after it was posted, Facebook removed the video entirely.
This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump's video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.— Guy Rosen (@guyro) January 6, 2021
Facebook’s VP of integrity, Guy Rosen, called the moment an “emergency situation” and said the company believed the video “contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.” The video was also posted to YouTube, which removed it under a policy banning misinformation around voter fraud impacting the 2020 election.
Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer of Facebook and an influential voice on platform policy issues, said on Twitter that it was time for the two platforms to “cut him off.” “There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won’t do it,” he wrote. Facebook and Twitter have for years pushed back against pressure to ban Trump, though Twitter has been more aggressive about putting limits on his tweets since last May.
There have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance.— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) January 6, 2021
Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won't do it. pic.twitter.com/Nji6A4sJum
On Facebook, it was easy to find footage from the protests. A stream from NewsNationNow, which was being carried by a number of local news stations, appeared to have more than 20,000 viewers across a number of channels it was being broadcast on.
As the mob stormed the Capitol, Facebook and Instagram continued to allow searches for #StopTheSteal, and the posts were presented without warning labels. It was hard to find live videos through the hashtag on Facebook, which mostly surfaced older information. On Instagram, the hashtag was filled with screenshots of tweets presented alongside photos and videos of people rushing into the Capitol. One video appeared to show police officers pushing back protesters who tried to rush by them farther into the building. Instagram initially told The Verge it was reviewing the hashtag; shortly before 6PM ET, the company said it had restricted the hashtag so that only top posts would show up and most new posts were not visible.
“The violent protests in the Capitol today are a disgrace,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We prohibit incitement and calls for violence on our platform. We are actively reviewing and removing any content that breaks these rules.”
The tone was decidedly different on Parler — a right-wing Twitter clone — where users mostly posted in support of the protest. “They pushed patriots too far,” one wrote. “1776 HAS COMMENCED AGAIN!!!” wrote another.
On TheDonald.win, a successor to the banned subreddit r/The_Donald, a forum thread was posted as a central location to watch and chat as “PATRIOTS STORM THE CAPITOL.”
Update January 6th, 5PM ET: This story has been updated with details on Facebook and Twitter’s responses to Trump’s video post.
Update January 6th, 6PM ET: Facebook and YouTube have both removed Trump’s video. Instagram has restricted the #stopthesteal hashtag. This story has been updated to include the new developments.
Update January 6th, 6:40PM ET: Twitter has now removed Trump’s video as well.