Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Election Day and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence, an investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post has found.
The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of then-President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term. Many posts portrayed Biden’s election as the result of widespread fraud that required extraordinary action — including the use of force — to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of traitors.
Another post, made 10 days after the election, bore the avatar of a smiling woman with her arms raised in apparent triumph and read, “WE ARE AMERICANS!!! WE FOUGHT AND DIED TO START OUR COUNTRY! WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT...FIGHT LIKE HELL. WE WILL SAVE HER❤ THEN WERE GOING TO SHOOT THE TRAITORS!!!!!!!!!!!”
One post showed a Civil War-era picture of a gallows with more than two dozen nooses and hooded figures waiting to be hanged. Other posts called for arrests and executions of specific public figures — both Democrats and Republicans — depicted as betraying the nation by denying Trump a second term.
“BILL BARR WE WILL BE COMING FOR YOU,” wrote a group member after Barr announced the Justice Department had found little evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread vote rigging. “WE WILL HAVE CIVIL WAR IN THE STREETS BEFORE BIDEN WILL BE PRES.”
Facebook executives have downplayed the company’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and have resisted calls, including from its own Oversight Board, for a comprehensive internal investigation. The company also has yet to turn over all the information requested by the congressional committee studying the Jan. 6 attack. Facebook said it is continuing to negotiate with the committee.
The ProPublica/Post investigation, which analyzed millions of posts between Election Day and Jan. 6 and drew on internal company documents and interviews with former employees, provides the clearest evidence yet that Facebook played a critical role in the spread of false narratives that fomented the violence of Jan. 6.
An updated documentary from ProPublica, FRONTLINE and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program tracks the migration of fringe election conspiracies into the mainstream. It airs tonight, Jan. 4, at 10pm EST.
Its efforts to police such content, the investigation also found, were ineffective and started too late to quell the surge of angry, hateful misinformation coursing through Facebook groups — some of it explicitly calling for violent confrontation with government officials, a theme that foreshadowed the storming of the Capitol that day amid clashes that left five people dead.
Drew Pusateri, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s newly renamed parent company, said that it was not responsible for the violence on Jan. 6. He pointed instead to Trump and others who voiced the lies that sparked the siege on the Capitol.
“The notion that the January 6 insurrection would not have happened but for Facebook is absurd,” Pusateri said. “The former President of the United States pushed a narrative that the election was stolen, including in-person a short distance from the Capitol building that day. The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them.”
To determine the extent of posts attacking Biden’s victory, The Post and ProPublica obtained a unique dataset of 100,000 groups and their posts, along with metadata and images, compiled by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The Post and ProPublica used machine learning to narrow that list to 27,000 public groups that showed clear markers of focusing on U.S. politics. Out of the more than 18 million posts in those groups between Election Day and Jan. 6, the analysis searched for words and phrases to identify attacks on the election’s integrity.
The more than 650,000 posts attacking the election — and the 10,000-per-day average — is almost certainly an undercount. The ProPublica/Washington Post analysis only examined posts in a portion of all public groups, and did not include comments, posts in private groups or posts on individuals’ profiles. Only Facebook has access to all the data to calculate the true total — and it hasn’t done so publicly.
Facebook has heavily promoted groups since CEO Mark Zuckerberg made them a strategic priority in 2017. But the ones focused on U.S. politics have become so toxic, say former Facebook employees, that the company established a task force, whose existence has not been previously reported, specifically to police them ahead of Election Day 2020.
The task force removed hundreds of groups with violent or hateful content in the months before Nov. 3, according to the ProPublica/Post investigation.
Yet shortly after the vote, Facebook dissolved the task force and rolled back other intensive enforcement measures. The results of that decision were clear in the data ProPublica and The Post examined: During the nine increasingly tense weeks that led up to Jan. 6, the groups were inundated with posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election while the pace of removals noticeably slowed. Removals did not pick up again until the week of Jan. 6, but even then many of the groups and their posts remained on the site for months after, as Trump supporters continued to falsely claim election fraud and press for states to conduct audits of the vote or to impose new voting restrictions.
“Facebook took its eye off the ball in the interim time between Election Day and Jan. 6,” said a former integrity team employee who worked on the groups task force and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters. “There was a lot of violating content that did appear on the platform that wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Pusateri denied that the company had pulled back on efforts to combat violent and false postings about the election after the vote. He did not comment on the quantitative findings of the ProPublica/Post investigation.
“The idea that we deprioritized our Civic Integrity work in any way is simply not true,” he said. “We integrated it into a largerCentral Integrity team to allow us to apply the work that this team pioneered for elections to other challenges like health-related issues for example. Their work continues to this day.”
The investigation also reveals a problem with the way Facebook polices its groups. Former employees say groups are essential to the company’s ability to keep a stagnant American user base as engaged as possible and boost its revenue, which reached nearly $86 billion in 2020.
But they say as groups have grown more central to Meta’s bottom line, the company’s enforcement efforts have been weak, inconsistent and heavily reliant on the work of unpaid group administrators to do the labor-intensive work of reviewing posts and removing the ones that violate company policies. Many groups have hundreds of thousands or even millions of members, dramatically escalating the challenges of policing posts.
With the administrators themselves steeped in conspiracy theories about the election or, for example, the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, reliable enforcement rarely takes place, say former employees. They say automated tools — which search for particular terms indicating policy violations — are ineffective and easily evaded by users simply misspelling key words.
“Groups are a disaster,” said Frances Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team who filed a whistleblower complaint against the company and testified before Congress warning about the damaging effects of the company on democracy worldwide, as well as other problems.
Many of the group posts identified in the analysis fell into what a March internal Facebook report, first published by Politico, defined as “harmful non-violating narratives.” This refers to content that does not break Facebook’s rules, but whose prevalence can cause people to “act in ways which are harmful to themselves, others, or society at large.”
The report warned that such harmful narratives could have had “substantial negative impacts including contributing materially to the Capitol riot and potentially reducing collective civic engagement and social cohesion in the years to come.”
Pusateri declined to comment on specific posts but said the company does not have a policy forbidding posts or comments that attack the legitimacy of the election. He said the company has a dedicated groups integrity team and an ongoing initiative to protect people who use groups from harm.
Facebook officials have noted that more extreme content flowed through smaller social media platforms in the buildup to the Capitol attack, including detailed planning on bringing guns or building gallows that day. But Trump also used Facebook as a key platform for his lies about the election right up until he was banned on Jan. 6. And Facebook’s reliance on groups to drive engagement gave those lies unequaled reach. This combined with the sag in post-election enforcement to make Facebook a key vector for pushing the ideas that fueled violence on Jan. 6.
Critics and former employees say this also underscores a recurring issue with the platform since its founding in Zuckerberg’s Harvard University dorm room in 2004: The company recognizes the need for enforcement only after a problem has caused serious damage, often in the form of real-world mayhem and violence.
Facebook didn’t discover the campaign by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency to spread hyperpartisan content and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election until months after Americans had voted. The company’s actions were late as well when Myanmar’s military leaders used Facebook to foment rapes, murders and forced migrations of minority Rohingya people. Facebook has apologized for failings in both cases.
The response to attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was similarly slow, as company officials debated among themselves whether and how to block the rapidly metastasizing lies about the election. The data shows they acted aggressively and comprehensively only after Trump supporters had battered their way into the Capitol, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives.
The ProPublica/Post investigation “is a new and very important illustration of the company's unfortunate tendency to deal with safety problems on its platform in a reactive way,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern School of Business. “And that almost by definition means that the company will be less effective, because it will not be looking out into the future and preventing problems before they happen.”
The Trouble With Policing Groups
Facebook’s newly vigorous enforcement actions the week of Jan. 6 — which resulted in Trump himself being banned from the platform — marked such a stark contrast from the company’s previous approach that some Trump supporters took to Facebook to complain about the reversal.
“Facebook is Getting Real Brave and Vicious Now,” Jerry Smith, a retired police officer from Missouri who created and ran a group called United Conservatives for America, wrote the day after the Capitol attack. “They Are Removing Tons of Posts From My Groups!”
In a recent interview at his home, Smith said he could not remember writing that message or which deletions prompted his response. He said he opposed political violence and posts that called for it. But he acknowledged it was difficult for him to remove such content as United Conservatives for America’s membership swelled to more than 11,000, with the number of posts surpassing what one person could monitor. The typical group in the ProPublica/Post analysis had more than 1,000 members.
Smith, who showed a reporter that his Facebook account had received 116 violations for breaking company rules, said he found some of Facebook’s policies reasonable but disagreed on how they should be enforced. He posted in United Conservatives for America and other groups at a frenetic pace long before Election Day. As early as the summer of 2020, he warned about alleged Democratic party plans to steal the election and also shared false information about the pandemic, including a video from a conspiracy theorist about the origins of the virus.
“And DEMS Are Pushing For Vote By Mail. Another Way For Them To Steal The Election,” he wrote in August 2020.
In the interview, Smith said he believes that American elections often are rigged and worries that COVID-19 vaccines may be tainted. He has used Facebook groups to share these beliefs with tens of thousands of people — and thinks Facebook’s enforcement of its policies is overly aggressive and a result of political bias against conservatives.
“Are you going to do away with their free speech?” said Smith. “If someone thinks it’s not a fair election … why can’t they have their opinion on whether it’s a fair election or not?”
Facebook Cracked Down Before the Election
Facebook’s problems with groups had long been obvious to company employees, who gathered on a remote video conference in early September 2020 to figure out how to stop groups from spreading hate, violent threats and misinformation as Election Day approached, according to former employees.
Known as the Group Task Force, the new unit they formed consisted of members of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, the specialized unit charged with protecting elections on the platform, as well as employees from engineering and operations teams who help oversee the contract moderators who review posts flagged by users or by automated systems, former employees said. The goal of the task force was to identify political groups with large numbers of posts and comments that violated the social giant’s rules against hate speech and calls for violence. Former employees involved in the effort said they wanted to apply the platform’s rules while respecting political debate and dialogue.
At the same time, Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations team was identifying and removing QAnon groups ahead of the election. The results of the two teams’ actions were striking. All of the more than 300 QAnon groups identified by ProPublica and The Post had been removed by October 2020, when Facebook announced a total ban on the movement, the analysis found.
In the end, the Group Task Force removed nearly 400 groups whose posts had been seen nearly 1 billion times before Election Day, according to a post on Workplace, Facebook’s internal discussion tool. The document later was included in the Facebook Papers disclosed by Haugen to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, members of the task force told ProPublica and The Post that the existence of such a team was an indictment of Facebook’s failure to police groups as part of its normal operations.
“The whole thing of the civic team needing to come in and do the takedowns was not a good state of affairs,” said one employee involved in the task force. “You could make a good argument that this should have already been done.”
On Nov. 5, Facebook banned “Stop the Steal,” a hugely viral group created on Election Day itself that quickly attracted over 300,000 members around a message rooted in attacking the legitimacy of the election. The company cited the prevalence of posts calling for violence and using hate speech in banning the group and all other groups using a similar name.
The next day, Nov. 6, the Group Task Force gathered virtually to celebrate its efforts, former employees said. Days later, a task force member published a Workplace post titled “Some Reflections on US2020” to bring attention to its work.
“Along with heroic efforts from other teams across the company, I truly believe the Group Task Force made the election safer and prevented possible instances of real world violence,” said the post.
But the focus on U.S. political groups and content undermining the election wouldn't last.
A Noticeable Drop in Enforcement
On Dec. 2, Facebook executives disbanded the Civic Integrity team and scattered its members to other parts of Facebook’s overall integrity team, reducing their influence. That resulted in the demise of the Group Task Force. The company also rolled back several emergency measures that had been put in place leading up to Election Day to control misbehavior in Facebook groups.
The Post/ProPublica investigation reveals the result: During the lull in enforcement, hundreds of thousands of posts questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, spread lies about voter fraud and at times called for violence. Meanwhile, the company’s pace of group removals slowed to a crawl, the data analysis shows.
Among the content spreading in groups were videos in which former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn spread false claims of electoral fraud and called for martial law. (Through a spokesperson, Flynn declined to comment.) Another frequent post was a cartoon showing Trump chasing a masked Biden, who carried a bag labeled “election theft” with swing states depicted inside. It was posted more than 350 times in the political groups analyzed by ProPublica and the Post, attracting over 2,500 total likes.
One meme featured a photo of former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who rose to fame in right-wing circles by leading a congressional committee’s investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, accompanied by the text “If you are ok with rigging an election to win, I am ok with martial law to stop you…” That was posted in groups at least 97 times, garnering over 3,500 total likes. Gowdy has denied saying the phrase.
Another meme showed a photo of Trump winking, with the text “Not Only Can Martial Law Guarantee a Trump Victory, It Also Allows Trump To Arrest Anyone He Wants!” It was posted at least 70 times, generating more than 2,400 total likes. The images and their spread in groups was identified using a CounterAction image analysis tool.
“Everyone needs to make a show of FORCE in DC on the 6th and any congress who doesnt follow the constitution or who doesnt stand up for our president (Pence included) needs to be ’corrected’ by WE the PEOPLE - on the front steps of the state house - for all the world to see!!! THIS IS HOW THE US DEALS WITH HER TRAITORS!!!” read one post from Dec. 27, 2020.
Ten days later, as rioters stormed the Capitol, the ProPublica/Post analysis shows, Facebook began taking down groups at a rate not seen since before the election. An internal Facebook spreadsheet from Jan. 6, which was included in Haugen’s disclosures, contains a section called “Action Items.” The top bullet point was a direction to conduct a “Sweep of Groups with V&I risk” — a term referring to violence and incitement. It had been 35 days since the Civic Integrity team, and with it the Group Task Force, had been disbanded.
Groups Still Active Long After Jan. 6
Months after the Capitol was breached, Facebook still was working to remove hundreds of political groups that violated company policies.
One of those was Smith’s United Conservatives for America, which continued to carry posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election until Facebook removed it in May.
When Smith met with a reporter in his home in early December, he’d just finished a 30-day posting ban on Facebook. In spite of his account’s history of violations, he was still managing at least one Facebook group — also called United Conservatives for America.
Like its predecessor, the new United Conservatives for America group was racking up strikes for violations of Facebook’s rules, according to a post Smith made to the group in September.
That post included a screenshot of an automated message from Facebook informing him that eight recent posts in the new United Conservatives for America group had been flagged by fact-checkers. As a result, the distribution of his group’s posts was being limited.
Smith remained defiant.
“I'm Not Blaming Our Members,” Smith wrote. “I’m Blaming FakeBook!”
In late December, after being asked about Smith’s account and group, Facebook said it banned his profile and removed United Conservatives for America, citing unspecified violations of its community standards.
Reporters: Craig Silverman, ProPublica, Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, Jeff Kao, ProPublica, and Jeremy B. Merrill, The Washington Post.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This story was co-published with The Washington Post.
More details on this investigation.
More Meta Media Bias, Gas-Lighting, and Propaganda…Lol – Violations of Facebook’s Rules??
Over and Over again Facebook (moderators) has turned out to be Highly Biased and one-sided in the moderation and application of its so-called “Rules”.
—- “Facebook Reverses Course after ‘permanently’ Locking Account of Conservative Children’s Book Publisher” (Jan 2022) —-
“Heroes of Liberty has published books about Amy Coney Barrett, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Sowell…”
“I wanted to let you know that the ads account was disabled in error and has been restored,”
said a spokesperson for Meta..”
“…Facebook caved to a vocal minority of users who claimed that Heroes of Liberty was disruptive..”
“To Cancel Children’s Books because they Celebrate American Values
that 90% of Americans Believe in isn’t even anti-conservative bias,
Didn’t the FBI already investigate January 6, and conclude Trump was NOT involved, neither were networks of “white supremacists?” It was a riot – just like the Floyd riots that did a lot more damage to communities. Can we move on now?
Steven is an absolute misinformation machine:
bootlicking Conoratartian censor alert
ding ding ding
Its not Jan 6th yet, but I know one thing, it Jan 5th and rent paying grace period is over.
gots to pay dat rents, jus gotta do it
as of 1/5/2022
rent is still due, facebook isn’t censoring that just yet
shouldn’t these commenters be earning instead of censoring?
This is a bit amusing, if one can engage in contemporary pathology with humor. This is more diseased leftism, and children of various ages gossiping and sniping about the riot last year and those making remarks critical of the 2020 Presidential election, from a Left that has gotten increasingly diseased, including with their entitlement to the White House. (The Left has attacked Trump largely without merit, often in crazed as well as vicious ways, since at least early 2016.)
It was a riot, with some (only) conducting attacks on the site and on police, not an “insurrection,” the most misused word for an entire year now, nor any attack on the Constitution or democracy, so impressively ironic coming from the Left.
It’s also amusing to see Facebook criticized, even though the far left hates it to some extent for its Big Data and “monetization-of-lives” behavior, since as part of tech and part of social media it’s hugely liberal and engages as the Left increasingly does in expressing its routine hatred and intolerance of dissent and rejection with censorship as well as other suppression. (In fact, a poll in recent times on college campuses, notorious for ages for PC fascism, and now with worse “woke” behavior, had students justify force to stop unwanted views from being expressed, which is the closest thing to explaining this dislike of Facebook with the January 2021 riot at the Capitol, as well as exemplifying the Left’s irony in particular with the riot. Man bit dog in the very rare case then.)
Left unfaced and largely unadmitted, still, in addition to the righties rioting being so very rare like other pathology compared to what’s on the Left and increasingly so, is that the entitlement to the White House has included not only trying to sue and use judicial activism and the courts once more as a political weapon to steal the White House after losing it in 2000, but to propose interfering with the electors years before it was discussed by righties in 2020, plus openly discussing what we saw eventually, bogus impeachment of Trump no matter the grounds, valid or not, first stated as a strategy for his removal months before the 2016 elections.
It’s time to get rid of Section 230
Rents? Rents? Did somebody “Not” say RENTS?
In Los Angeles, they may be due, but they can’t be raised, despite inflation faced by the owners, and a housing shortage.
(“Even in a hot market, L.A. won’t allow rent hikes for most tenants until [at least] 2023
Under the rules, landlords are not allowed to increase rents for an entire year after the expiration of the emergency order signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti in March 2020, when the policy went into effect.
As of now, no rent hikes will be allowed for most L.A. tenants until 2023. And possibly beyond.”)
Mayor Liccardo, “courageous” “hero” awaiting his next gig, where are you, the activists wonder.
(Ban Trumpian Rent Increases!)
What if your lively hood depends on people paying what they owe? Then what? We all starve?
Great plan you have there……..
rent freeze, who cares, I and most landlords only raise rents on turnover, you need the $50 more than us, and it’s just a matter of time before you’re out anyway…
…with about 40000 (out of 70000 TPO units, 95%+ due to nonpayment of rent) Just Cause Evictions in San Jose alone over the past 4 years, who cares about a rent freeze or control, you can just raise to market once they are out. I would guess turnover on ARO/TPOs to be AT LEAST 25% a year, they don’t publish that number. At that rate, you’d have a (almost) complete turnover in a reasonable sized place every 3-4 years in this regulatory environment, which is ideal. Renovate, 4-year tenancy, renovate… wash, rinse, repeat…
Now of course since the City Council was dumb enough to play the use it or lose it mechanic on the last go around, you’re gonna see a 5% every year just as a way to minimize valuation spreads. haha, chumps!
whatCHA gots to do is pay dat rents (CHA meaning YOU)
or you’re gonna be a JCE statistic
one thing is for sure, unless your landlord is desperate or naive, they will not lower rent-controlled rents in a downturn, like the market rate ones did just last year. So once you are in rent control prison, you’re in for life, sucka, cause where you gonna move to when you paying $1500 and the market is getting $3300? So gotta pay dat rents…
Dems are doing all they can to milk the Jan06 riot for maximum political weaponization to bail them out of a bad forecast for mid-term elections.
The stacked Jan06 committee is their one hope to smear & flagellate the opposition with hearings in the run-up to the 2022 midterms.
Polls show Americans have largely moved on … the great concerns to them are
and Crime –
all of which Joe Biden & Dems are doing badly on.
Nearly half of voters – 47% including a similar share of independents, said they didn’t expect the riot to have any impact on their votes in November.
Not surprisingly, Dems are doing things NOT Based on what’s best for America,
but on what they think will help their Political Power…
“A full year after the 1/6 riot at the Capitol,
the total number of indictments from the Biden DOJ for insurrection,
sedition or treason is the same number as
Americans indicted by Mueller for criminally conspiring with Russia over the 2016 election:
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 3, 2022
American journalist, author, and First Amendment litigation lawyer.
When I posted the Saudis are war criminals with a news articles about a Yemeni hospital reduced to rubble, Facebook flagged it a hate speech and took it down. Maybe they should censor it themselves instead of using the Atlantic Council, a CIA cutout staffed with ex military. Or maybe you should not even couch this as a failure to censor. When San Jose Inside is biased you can at least see it, when social media is biased your post appears on page two. I consider Facebook a publisher because of censorship and I don’t think they deserve safe harbor under the law.
COMMUTED: Bias is there in the mainstream media, too. Many years ago while in Seattle, I saw an article in the Seattle Times that discussed a local shooting, that ran to two pages, and the header for the later portion on the second page was “Do Guns Rule?” That newspaper did such things more than once, in addition to not putting an important story merely on page two, but in the case of the balanced budget amendment that went to a vote, the article on the vote was moved to the Business section, on page three or four, and not at the top of that page.
Calling for censorship AI bots and here we are living with the fog of war and all media is State media. The cost of censorship, which is all done by robotic AI, is a new and expensive cold war. You’re so happy to create this censor beast. But I ask, who knew the US is poking the Russian bear relentlessly? That there was a 2014 coup in Ukraine backed by the US. Opposition media was shut down after the coup. That Eastern Ukraine resisted and was shelled continuously for 8 years or that ethnic Russians did most of the dying? The US is running 26 bio facilities involved in weapons along the Ukraine border. Well it looks like you’re getting your censor tools. The cost of having them is much more than the cost of not having them.
Honestly instead of calling for MORE censorship, the left could really do the country a favor by responding to some of the most infuriating videos and other apparent evidence of voting malfeasance.
There are 6,000 sworn affidavits (far exceeding any previous election) documenting poll monitors being forcibly removed from tallying operations. Also forcing the R ones to stand 50′ or more away from the tables where the counting was taking place. Arizona’s Maricopa county deleted subpoena’d evidence. Arizona election officials had emails released under FOIA detailing exactly which dates and locations they would request citizens to use sharpie pens to mark their ballots. Why?
Why does California refuse to clean its voter rolls?
Zuckerberg spent $400 million to change election rules around the country (and bragged about it) — why are dropboxes needed for states with universal mail-out/mail-in ballots where return postage is pre-paid? This seems highly unjustified other than to enable fraud. If not, please explain it.
The media no longer asks such questions helping to ensure confidence in the fundamental process underlying our democracy. People that ask these questions get censored. Don’t be surprised when people show up angry as hell. It is going to get FAR worse if the media doesn’t start to even pretend to do their job.