Essential California: The social media reckoning (again)

A cellphone with social media apps
In the wake of violent insurrection at the Capitol, the giants of Silicon Valley are facing yet another reckoning over the role their platforms have played.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 8, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

A little less than three weeks ago, President Trump tweeted that it was statistically impossible for him to have lost the 2020 election. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he continued, speaking directly to his more than 80 million followers. “Be there, will be wild!”

If you tweet it, they will come. On Jan. 6, a violent mob of insurrectionists incited by the president laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. That rally-turned-attempted-coup took shape on social media. According to Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor who tracks online extremism, much of the actual planning for the event occurred across a smattering of niche platforms popular in far-right circles. But plans were amplified across mainstream social media platforms, and BuzzFeed News reports that “calls for violence were easy to find” on those same mainstream channels.

Now, the giants of Silicon Valley are facing yet another reckoning (How many times can we do this?) over the role their platforms have played in the debacle.

Angelo Carusone, president of the nonprofit watchdog organization Media Matters for America, told my colleagues that Facebook has allowed groups circulating harmful lies to grow unchecked for years. “It’s created an enormous amount of damage,” he said.


According to Carusone, the tech platform’s single biggest failure was allowing the spread of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that burst into the mainstream in early 2020.

As Times tech journalists Sam Dean, Johana Bhuiyan and Suhauna Hussain report, those social media companies closed out Wednesday by taking their strongest enforcement actions ever, including temporary locks on Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. But critics say the companies’ pattern of tentative half-measures helped precipitate a crisis for U.S. democracy.

[Read the story: “Twitter, Facebook lock down Trump after social media-fueled riot in D.C.” in the Los Angeles Times]

On Thursday morning, Facebook moved a bit further, suspending President Trump’s account through the end of his presidency “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

On Thursday afternoon, former First Lady Michelle Obama issued a scathing statement that called on Silicon Valley companies “to stop enabling this monstrous behavior — and go even further than they have already by permanently banning this man from their platforms.”

I asked Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor who tracks online extremism, if she thought the major social media companies bore some responsibility for the messages amplified on their platforms.


“I do,” she said. “They’ll try to claim a free speech angle, or a ‘We didn’t know.’ But at some point, that stretches credulity. There’s been enough people raising the alarm about this for months, years, decades at this point.”

[See also: “Column: It is not just Trump. Blame California social media companies for D.C. riot too” in the Los Angeles Times]

Squire said hearing the same lines used over and over again — that Facebook wasn’t a place for hate, and everyone should have a safe experience on Twitter — had grown old. “What are you going to do about it?” she asked, noting that the platforms “always seem to wait until after the fact” to act.

Squire said she had signed too many op-eds and letters to the editor trying to get “so and so off the platform” over the years to count. “They just ignore you.”

Political aftershocks from the Capitol siege continued to shake the country Thursday, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) releasing a joint statement on efforts to invoke the 25th Amendment against President Trump.

[See also: “Think the 25th Amendment is a solution to the next two weeks? Think again” in the Los Angeles Times]

Trump delivered something of a concession in a videotaped statement, released on Twitter on Thursday night amid growing calls on Capitol Hill to impeach him a second time. Unlike the video he posted to Twitter on Wednesday evening in which he told supporters “we love you,” resulting in the 28-hour suspension of his account, Trump rebuked the insurrectionists in his latest missive.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

L.A. is using a coronavirus test that the FDA warns may produce false negatives: The coronavirus test being provided daily to tens of thousands of residents in Los Angeles and other parts of California may be producing inaccurate results, according to a warning from federal officials that could raise questions about the accuracy of infection data shaping the pandemic response. Los Angeles Times

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The National Guard has been called to L.A. County to help with the temporary storage of bodies at the county medical examiner-coroner’s office, relieving pressure on hospital morgues and private mortuaries that have run out of storage space for bodies. Los Angeles Times

Rejected elsewhere for “violence,” a billboard depicting the police killing of George Floyd rises in West Hollywood. The West Hollywood billboard will remain up for four weeks, and a replica is up in Atlanta. Los Angeles Times

La Cienega Boulevard and Holloway Drive in West Hollywood beneath a billboard depicting the death by cop of George Floyd.
Located at the intersection of La Cienega Boulevard and Holloway Drive in West Hollywood, the billboard features an oil painting depiction of George Floyd’s killing.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

(Almost) all the L.A. references in “Mr. Mayor,” explained. The new comedy, starring Ted Danson, is set in Los Angeles and mentions Angelyne, the Night Stalker and the California drought. Los Angeles Times

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A running list of the White House resignations triggered by Trump’s incitement of this week’s mob violence: They defended him through the Russian investigation and his impeachment. But now, with two weeks left in his term, some of Trump’s loyalists are quitting his administration. Los Angeles Times

Which California lawmakers still voted to challenge the certification of the election? When Congress reconvened in the wake of an attempted coup by an insurrectionist mob, seven California lawmakers voted against certifying the election results: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Bonsall), Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-Hesperia) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare). Los Angeles Times

Huntington Beach’s mayor pro tem was barred from a meeting for not wearing mask: Rather than complying with the rules, Tito Ortiz chose to participate in a strategic planning and goal-setting workshop via Zoom from a library parking lot. Los Angeles Times

The California DMV has postponed in-person driving tests until February amid the COVID surge: Scheduled DMV appointments will be automatically rescheduled. Sacramento Bee


Searching for fraud, California suspends payment on 1.4 million unemployment claims. State lawmakers say their offices have been flooded with desperate calls from constituents who don’t understand why their jobless benefits have been cut off by the state Employment Development Department. Los Angeles Times


How COVID-19 is straining Santa Clara County’s 911 system: Santa Clara County officials “shared a sobering picture of Silicon Valley’s ambulance system crumbling under the pressures of the pandemic.” San Jose Spotlight


A former Oakland cop was part of D.C.’s pro-Trump mob. He defended the Capitol siege. SF Gate

If David Boies sells his Lake County ranch for its asking price, it will be the most expensive sale in the county’s history. The superlawyer earned national renown during Bush vs. Gore and the fight for marriage equality, but his role in scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes have caused his star to plummet in recent years. As for the 1,183-acre ranch in question, it’s located roughly 100 miles north of San Francisco and has its own organic vineyard and winery. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

A poem to start your Friday: “Housekeeping” by Natasha Trethewey. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 73. San Diego: partly sunny, 66. San Francisco: partly sunny, 57. San Jose: partly sunny, 63. Fresno: partly cloudy, 59. Sacramento: partly cloudy, 59.


Today’s California memory comes from Jim Ingram:

I was raised on a small farm a mile east of El Monte. I walked to and from school a mile each way, as there were no buses. I had chores to do but always found time to explore the county and tease my neighbor’s bull. I got my butt spanked when I had a cut on my arm from tangling with barbed wire after escaping from the tormented bull. I got my first BB gun at 5 and first .22 at 10. Mom, Dad and I would walk a half-mile to the railroad track and wave as the troop transports passed by. My dad was very distraught that he was too old to enlist, but he applied for and was accepted into a newly created guard force at a magnesium plant in the middle of the desert between Las Vegas and Boulder Dam, so the farm was sold and we moved. What a change in life.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.