In the days after thousands of right wingers breached the Capitol building and killed four of their peers and an officer in the Capitol police force, Facebook and other social media companies shut down tens of thousands of accounts, including a political organization that was founded to encourage Democrats to leave that party and join the Republican Party.
“Facebook has finally done it!” Brandon Straka, who is gay and the founder of the #WalkAway Campaign, wrote on his personal Facebook page on January 8. “They have cancelled #WalkAway and silenced hundreds of thousands of voices. Not only did they remove the #WalkAway Campaign Facebook Group with over 500K members, they’ve disabled our pages and the personal accounts of staff and volunteers associated with the group.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: While it was originally unclear whether Straka was at the Capitol, an anonymous tipster sent a link to Gay City News showing a January 6 livestream that Straka created on the steps of the Capitol building. At about six minutes in the livestream, Straka turns his phone on himself and says “They’re using gas, we’re being gassed right now.” While it is known that gas was used by police inside the building to disperse the crowd, no gas can be seen in the livestream. At about four minutes in the livestream, the crowd assaults a police office while chanting “USA, USA.” Straka does not appear to have joined in the chanting. While he was a few yards from a main door, there is no indication that he entered the building. An archived webpage sent by the tipster shows Straka tweeting “I was quite close to entering myself as police began tear gassing us from the door. I inhaled tear gas & got it in my eyes.”
While Facebook and Instagram, Facebook’s other major social media platform, and Twitter had already been taking steps to ban or counter misleading content about COVID-19 and the November 3 election, these companies grew more aggressive following the January 6 rioting that left five people dead and dozens of police injured.
Police seized “dozens of weapons and firearms,” and “2 pipe bombs and a box of Molotov cocktails,” according to a January 7 press release issued by the union that represents officers in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that patrols Washington, DC. Since then, videos have emerged showing the rioters battling with Capitol police and MPD officers.
The most notable banned user was Donald Trump, who was “permanently suspended” on Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the company said. Facebook barred Trump from posting new content and Youtube, which is owned by Google, suspended his account. In a speech to a large crowd near the White House prior to the start of the rioting, Trump told the crowd to march to Capitol Hill. His later tweets and videos were seen as encouraging the violence.
On January 11, Facebook said it was removing all “stop the steal” content, a reference to false allegations that the election was stolen from Trump, on both platforms. It is also taking steps to bar any organizing of or incitement of violence. The platforms will no longer allow “Praise and support of the storming of the US Capitol.”
On January 12, Twitter announced it was taking steps to halt any effort to use Twitter to organize violence. It “began permanently suspending thousands of accounts that were primarily dedicated to sharing QAnon content” on January 8 and had suspended “more than 70,000 accounts” by January 12.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory that posits that a cabal of Satanists who drink the blood of children are secretly running a global government that controls the world. It resembles the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a 1919 book that claimed to expose a secret Jewish plan to control the world. Some rioters at the Capitol building displayed anti-Semitic clothing that celebrated the Holocaust.
Activists and political leaders on the right have complained for years that Big Tech, as Silicon Valley companies are commonly called, have discriminated against them, but as anyone who travels on the other side of the political spectrum knows, the left gets suspended, or sent to “Facebook jail,” on these platforms frequently. Straka maintained the right wing view.
“THIS. IS. TYRANNY,” he wrote of the Facebook ban. “Big tech is content to muzzle the masses because it does not fit their ideological utopia. They are drunk with power and staining the very fabric of our American values.”
Straka founded the #WalkAway Campaign in 2018 after posting a six-minute video in which he offered a litany of standard right wing complaints about the Democratic Party. A 2019 review of his voting record showed that he had voted just six times since registering as a Democrat in 2004 and only one of those votes was cast in a primary. He was received well among conservatives. He spoke at major right wing events, such as the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC as it is better known, campaign rallies for Trump, and continues to appear on far right media outlets.
In 2019, Straka rented a room at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center for a #WalkAway Campaign town hall. Following a community outcry, the Center cancelled the rental. Straka sued, but the case was dismissed in 2020.
Straka did not respond to a call seeking comment.
Whether on the left or right, the implications of having a few private companies owning and dominating discourse have been made clear. Trump’s Twitter account was his primary means of communicating with his base and he has now been silenced. Straka is still using a website, his Twitter account, and is migrating the #WalkAway content to Clouthub, another social media platform.
“Concerning, very concerning because those platforms are like a private version of Main Street,” said Bill Dobbs, a longtime gay activist and civil libertarian. “On Main Street, anybody is welcome. When you turn something private, the owners are in charge…When you endorse shutting people down, it will come back to haunt the people who endorsed it.”
Jared Arader, the president of the Lambda Independent Democrats, a Brooklyn LGBT political club, had a pithier response the Straka ban, writing “Good Riddance!” in an email.
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