Tweets from former President Donald Trump inspired the violence at the US Capitol on January 6th, a former Twitter employee who worked on platform and content moderation policies told congressional investigators in testimony released on Tuesday.
The employee, whose identity remains anonymous, specifically pointed to a December 19th tweet from Trump, which his supporters to join him in “protest” of the 2020 election results. “Be there. Will be wild,” the tweet said. According to the anonymous employee, that message was seen by many within Twitter as directly responsible for the violence that followed, which left five dead and has resulted in more than 700 arrests.
That impression was confirmed by testimony from Dr. Donell Harvin, the chief of Homeland Security for Washington, DC. “We got derogatory information from OSINT suggesting that some very, very violent individuals were organizing to come to DC,” Harvin said in recorded testimony. “All the red flags went up at that point.”
In testimony, the Twitter employee explained that platform was wary of the former president’s presence on the platform as early as September 2020 when Trump urged members of the violent far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate.
“My concern was that the former president, for seemingly the first time, was speaking directly to extremist organizations and giving them directives,” the employee said of the September debate statement. “We had not seen that sort of direct communication before, and that concerned me.”
Despite the concerns, the employee said that Twitter refused to ban Trump in response to the statements. “If former President Donald Trump were any other user on Twitter, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago,” the employee told investigators.
Asked to explain the reluctant moderation approach, the employee described a symbiotic relationship between the platform and President Trump. “I believe that Twitter relished in the knowledge that they were also the favorite and most used service of the former president,” the employee said, “and enjoyed having that sort of power within the social media ecosystem.”
Trump was banned from Twitter two days after the storming of the Capitol, a decision that remains both contested and controversial. In a policy statement announcing the ban, Twitter said the action was necessary “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” citing two tweets posted in the days following the event.
Responding to Tuesday’s testimony, Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy told The Verge “We are clear-eyed about our role in the broader information ecosystem in regards to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol.” “He continued, “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.”
Still, there’s evidence suggesting Trump considered tweeting even more explicit calls to action. After issuing a subpoena to Twitter in January, the committee obtained a draft Trump tweet that explicitly called for a march on the Capitol. “Please arrive early, massive crowds expected,” the tweet reads. “March to the Capitol after.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), one of the lawmakers leading Tuesday’s hearing, gave further background to the message by saying that Trump was urged by advisors to accept his election loss mere hours before issuing the December 19th tweet. Instead of accepting the loss, “Donald Trump would issue a tweet that would galvanize his followers, unleash a political firestorm, and change the course of our history as a country,” Raskin said.
Updated July 12th, 2022 at 3:30PM ET: Included a statement from Twitter.