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 protestors 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.
Commenters posted things like “coup time” and “time to take it back, USA”
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 livestreams viewed by The Verge, and a reporter saw ads playing on an RT live stream. YouTube’s rules say that videos and livestreams 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.
One of the “Super Chat” tips sent into a livestream.
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 livestreams, 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.
Twitch commenters responded in astonishment at what they were seeing
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 protestors’ attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election.
Twitch didn’t appear to have any political labels or warning messages on these 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.
The tone was decidedly different on pro-Trump social platforms
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 protestors who tried to rush by them further into the building. Instagram told The Verge it is reviewing the hashtag and would take action if it is found to violate the platform’s policies.
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.”