Peters seeks responses from social media companies on removing violent extremist content

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Sen. Gary Peters is moving to another phase of his Jan. 6 investigation, sending letters Friday to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that seek responses about how the social media giants monitor and remove violent extremist and conspiracy-related content.

Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, chairs the Senate Homeland Security committee which in June released a bipartisan report with the Senate Rules panel on security and intelligence failures leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Peters in his new letters to the social media companies notes that extremists are using online platforms to recruit, communicate, fundraise, plan and organize, including in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6. In Michigan, he noted that Facebook was used to organize and share footage of paramilitary exercises in the alleged plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairs a Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Peters is concerned in particular that social media platforms' algorithms for boosting user engagement, ad targeting and generating revenue "may contribute to the amplification of dangerous and radicalizing content."

"According to the FBI and intelligence officials, domestic terrorism is currently the most deadly national security threat,” Peters said. "Social media companies must be more transparent about how domestic terrorists take advantage of these platforms in ways that put Americans at risk."

He acknowledged that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have moved to address the proliferation of domestic extremist content on their platforms, but Peters said reports show white supremacist, anti-government and conspiracy-related content and targeted ads remain online. 

As an example, Peters pointed to a 71-minute livestream and other videos from a North Carolina man, identified as Floyd Ray Roseberry, who parked in a truck outside the Library of Congress last month claiming to have a bomb. That video was posted on Facebook for more than five hours before being taken down, according to Peters' letter to Facebook. 

Peters is also asking the companies for information on the relationship between the companies’ content-prioritization algorithms and targeted advertising tools, as well as the promotion of violent extremist content on the platforms and the companies’ advertising revenues.

He is asking them to comply with his requests no later than Oct. 4.

The letters from Peters come eight months after the violent attack prompted by former President Donald Trump's unproven claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

That day, hundreds of Trump supporters broke into the Capitol building, ransacked lawmakers' offices and fought with police in an effort to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden's victory.

More than 140 police officers reported injuries, including an officer who is going to lose his eye, another who was stabbed with a metal fence stake, and one who suffered a heart attack after being attacked multiple times with a stun gun, according to the June report.

Five people ultimately died in the riot, including some by apparently natural causes. That figure doesn't count four police officers who defended the Capitol that date and died by suicide in the days and months after the siege.

Peters' committee held a hearing last month on the rise of domestic terrorism.

mburke@detroitnews.com