Social Media Companies Face Threat of Subpoena from Texas Senate
Social media companies that failed to send representatives to a hearing of the Texas Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety will face a subpoena if they do not show up for another committee meeting in December, says the Chairwoman of the Committee.
“I wanted to inform the committee that we did invite several experts to discuss these charges (topics) but some could not make it to this hearing,” said Sen. Joan Huffman at the opening of the Senate hearing on Oct. 30. “We may compel participation.”
While Huffman initially would not say who these “experts” were, it became clear later in the hearing that she was referring to representatives of social media companies. Huffman added that she hoped to have bipartisan support from the committee for the issuance of subpoenas.
“I do hope that the social media companies will come before us because I have so many questions,” said Sen. Jane Nelson later in the hearing.
Lawmakers in both chambers of the Texas Legislature have expressed frustration with Silicon Valley companies for not showing up to hearings of select committees on mass violence prevention, which were formed in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso and Midland/Odessa in August.
At a hearing of a House panel earlier this month, lawmakers berated Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Twitter for failing to send representatives. “It was very disappointing that Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Microsoft wouldn’t make themselves available to testify,” said Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), the chair of the House panel on mass violence prevention. “Millions of Texans engage their platforms daily, and they deserve answers.”
Facebook, the only tech company to send a representative, did not escape unscathed either. Rep. Cesar Blanco (D-El Paso) criticized the company for being “unable to provide information on suspended accounts in Texas for violations related to promoting terrorism,” and for providing only “vague” policy recommendations as to how law enforcement and social media could work together to act on threats of mass violence.
Sen. Huffman said that the “experts” that she wanted to attend the hearing had said they couldn’t come but would make themselves available in December. “But if they do not, I hope this committee will support me in doing what we have the legal authority to do: to subpoena these individuals to come and answer the questions of the committee.”
Huffman’s committee is tasked with studying several topics for possible legislative action, including assessing “how state and local law enforcement agencies, fusion centers, mental health providers, digital platforms and social media companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., can better collaborate to detect, prevent, and respond to mass violence and terroristic activity.”
The committee is also considering “the role digital media, dark web networks, and overall cultural issues play in the promotion of mass violence and how these contribute to the radicalization of individuals and incitement of racism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism.”
‘We’re Not Pleased’
The hearing’s key witness, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety Steven McGraw, testified that social media companies were not cooperating fully with law enforcement in their efforts to prevent mass killings and act on threats.
“We’re not satisfied with what we think could be done, especially in terms of reports on threats to life,” said McGraw. “We know that they have the capability to identify threats, because they’ve reported threats to us, they just wouldn’t tell us who [made the threat]. It was not very helpful.”
“If they get a threat to life, we really need to know both ends of that. Because we don’t have probable cause otherwise. It’d be very easy for them to identify and say this is who the threat is against and this is who the threat is from.”
He also pointed to the role of social media in providing “notoriety” to killers. “What you see with these individuals is that they’re seeking notoriety and one way to do it is social media. And especially so when you livestream the killing itself, and you post your manifesto. And those are the two things that worry us about social media right now — the ability for someone to livestream a killing event as they did in New Zealand.”
Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked McGraw if he had any hope that there could be collaboration with social media companies to develop a protocol using algorithms to identify imminent threats.
He responded in part, “I absolutely believe that to be the case given the proper amount of pressure… I’m very confident that the state Legislature here and perhaps Congress can wield that type of influence or even legislation that requires them to be more proactive.”
“But I can tell you right now that I’m not pleased with where we’re at right now,” he added. “We’re not pleased either,” said Sen. Zaffirini.
McGraw also spoke about white supremacy and other ideologies that have radicalized terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and Patrick Crusius, the El Paso shooter. And he touched on incel ideology, which has played a part in radicalizing a number of mass shooters in recent years. “I know it sounds strange, and it takes a while to get used to unless you’ve looked at the underlying data, is this community called incels, or involuntary celibates, and they’re really disaffected young males that feel like society has conspired to isolate them…
“There’s always been people like that in our schools, as long as we can remember. The difference is now they can rally amongst themselves with social media, they can talk, they empower each other, they go back and research, and they egg each other on, and you know cheer for those that have killed and the body count, and they cheer for those that can increase the body count.”
Facebook Refuses Take Down Video of Victims
Senators at the hearing were also unhappy with Facebook for refusing to take down a video taken by a witness that showed victims bleeding and suffering in the aftermath of a shooting that killed two people and injured 12 others at an off-campus party near Texas A&M Commerce.
“That has surfaced and it’s my understanding that there were some people asking of Facebook to perhaps take that down and they have refused,” said Chair Joan Huffman. “Correct… It’s gone back and forth. Last I know, the attorneys have said that it needs to stay,” said McGraw.
He noted, “Going back to the ideation and motivation, I’m concerned that people will see it and say, ‘This is how I get notoriety.’ There’s nothing to be learned by looking at it other than the horror and the graphics.” While the video may have some evidentiary value, he said, “there’s not value” to having it in the public sphere.
At time of publication, the video had not been removed from Facebook.
Texas lawmakers and the governor have spearhead several initiatives in response to the mass shootings in August, including roundtable discussions and hearings in which local officials, medical professionals, and safety experts have taken part. Democrats have criticized these initiatives for failing to prioritize gun control measures, such as banning the sale of assault rifles, which they say would save lives.