During a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that America would be in a “better place” if social media companies took more responsibility for the misuse of their platforms.
Wray said that in response to Senator Richard Blumenthal, about what the FBI can do to address the use of social media to incite violence and whether tech companies were doing enough to prevent attacks.
Those who participated in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol are said to have mobilized and organized through social media, and the event has been used to justify calls for a social media crackdown.
According to Wray, social media companies can do more to moderate content that violates their community standards.
“We tried to work with the social media companies and there are things that they can and do using their terms of service and violations of their terms of service to take accounts down and things like that,” Wray said.
“But there is, I think, a phenomenon that we all have to recognize, which is that the social media industry enjoys the ability to amplify and connect people. There are good things that come with that and bad things that come with that. We would all be in a better place the more the companies take responsibility for misuse and abuse of the platforms.”
The committee’s chair, Senator Dick Durbin, said it is surprising the FBI does not monitor publicly available social media content, especially considering the Jan. 6 riot.
He also noted that the Attorney General’s guidelines give the FBI the authority to “proactively surf the internet to find publicly available websites where the promotion of terrorist crimes are openly taking place.”
Wray said it is a complicated topic and clarified that then-FBI Counterterrorism head Jill Sanborn was trying to explain that the agency does not have the authority to “persistently and passively sit on the internet” to monitor social media discussions.
“It’s more complicated than that, but with proper predication and authorized purpose, there are things we can do in terms of publicly available social media,” he said.
Senator Mike Lee told Wray that Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy, suggesting that monitoring social media is a form of a warrantless search. He referenced a 2021 transparency report where the FBI said that it had identified four cases of US citizens being unlawfully searched without going through the proper process under Section 270 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Section 270 allows the collection of electronic communications of foreigners but there have been many unlawful cases of Americans being spied on.
Senator Lee asked how the FBI found out about the four cases and how it confirmed they were actually four, arguing that he found it “utterly implausible” that the number was limited to four. Wray could not definitively answer the questions, saying that the findings could have been obtained from DOJ’s national security reviews and internal FBI audits to confirm FISA compliance.