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Social media companies taking action to curb violence, but what are the unintended consequences?

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Posted at 6:10 PM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-12 18:14:50-05

(WXYZ) — On Tuesday, President Donald Trump condemned actions that have banned him and thousands of others from using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter after last week's riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Twitter reports suspending more than 70,000 user accounts just since Friday. Facebook just announced they will remove posts with certain phrases like “stop the steal.” These are all efforts to prevent people from inciting violence as the inauguration nears, but could these actions have unintended effects?

“It actually may make it harder for law enforcement going forward,” says Javed Ali, a former senior U.S. government counter-terrorism official, now the Towsley Foundation policymaker in residence at the Ford School of Public Policy at U of M.

Social Media has become an important tool for law enforcement over the years. Right now more than a dozen men are charged in a plot to kidnap governor Whitmer, a plan the FBI says was discovered through social media where “a group of people were discussing a violent overthrow,” according to court documents.

And that’s just one of many examples of social media helping an investigation.

“These are the platforms where more and more threat-related information is occurring and it’s not happening in closed forums or protected and cryptic communications,” Ali said.

This means law enforcement doesn’t need to exclusively rely on specially trained investigators. Any officer or concerned citizen can spot and report threats. It also means that people with criminal intent can easily recruit or incite others, like what we saw in Washington D.C. last week.

That violence led to Twitter and Facebook taking aggressive steps in suspending accounts.

“From a national security perspective or counter-terrorism perspective, you can make the argument that these are good steps. And perhaps steps that should have happened well earlier,” says Ali, but there is another side of the coin.

Those kicked off mainstream social media will likely find other ways to communicate with supporters and followers.

“It will be even harder to find the real threats in the more closed and less prominent virtual worlds in which these ideas and beliefs are being shared,” Ali said.

That doesn’t mean tech companies shouldn’t take the actions they are taking.

“This is a never-ending sort of yin and yang of one step forward and sometimes two steps back,” Ali said.