The congressional committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol has issued subpoenas to Alphabet, Reddit, Twitter and Facebook parent Meta, demanding records relating to the 2020 US presidential election.
The subpoenas announced on Thursday signalled a significant escalation in the work of the January 6 committee, which is led by Democrats and counts just two Republicans among its ranks.
The panel has in recent months solicited testimony from dozens of Trump administration officials and allies in its pursuit of information relating to the siege on the Capitol by the former president’s supporters, which interrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s election and left five people dead.
“Two key questions for the select committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps, if any, social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalising people to violence,” said Bennie Thompson, the Democratic lawmaker who chairs the committee.
Thompson said it was “disappointing” that despite “months of engagement” lawmakers “still do not have the documents and information necessary to answer those basic questions”.
Alphabet said it has been “actively co-operating” with the select committee since the start of the investigation and that it had responded “substantively” to requests for documents and was committed to working with Congress.
It added: “We have strict policies prohibiting content that incites violence or undermines trust in elections across YouTube and Google’s products, and we enforced these policies in the run-up to January 6 and continue to do so today. We remain vigilant and are committed to protecting our platforms from abuse.”
Meta said: “As chairman Thompson said recently, ‘Facebook is working with [the committee] to provide the necessary information we requested.’ Since then, Meta has produced documents to the committee on a schedule committee staff requested — and we will continue to do so.”
Reddit said it had “received the subpoena and will continue to work with the committee on their requests”. Twitter declined to comment.
The January 6 committee has indicated that it also intends to boost its efforts by targeting sitting lawmakers. The committee on Wednesday said it requested information from Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives. McCarthy indicated he would not voluntarily co-operate with the probe, setting the stage for another possible subpoena in the coming weeks.
Thursday’s subpoenas to Big Tech firms came hours after the Department of Justice revealed that Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers rightwing extremist group, had been charged with seditious conspiracy over his role on January 6.
The charges are the first to be brought against Rhodes, who was arrested on Thursday in Little Elm, Texas. Another defendant, Edward Vallejo, was charged and arrested for the first time in connection with the riots. Nine additional named co-defendants were already facing separate charges relating to the attack.
The justice department, which is running an investigation separate from the congressional probe, described the Oath Keepers as a “large but loosely organised collection of individuals, some of whom are associated with militias”.
The indictment alleged that in the wake of the November 2020 election, Rhodes conspired with the other defendants to “oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power” by co-ordinating and travelling to Washington for the certification of the election results and planning to bring weapons to support their efforts.
The unsealing of the indictment marked a significant development in the justice department’s investigation of the attack just one week after the first anniversary of the riots.
US attorney-general Merrick Garland last week vowed to hold January 6 perpetrators “at any level” to account and defended his department’s work in pursuing those involved. Progressives have accused the justice department of not acting aggressively enough in pursuing Trump and his supporters.
Garland said more than 725 defendants had already been charged with criminal counts relating to the attack and indicated bigger charges may be still to come.
“In complex cases, initial charges are often less severe than later charged offences,” Garland said, adding: “The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco