‘Stop the Steal’ spread on Facebook enabled Jan. 6 insurrection: internal report
Facebook executives have been dismissive from the start about attempts to hold them accountable for their social media platform's role in inciting and organizing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—including CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress last month in which he evaded questions about his company's culpability, saying: "I think that the responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection."
But an internal Facebook report uncovered by BuzzFeed shows that the company failed to take action against "Stop the Steal" and other accounts where false information about the election was widely propagated in an attempt to delegitimize the 2020 election, violence was encouraged, and where much of the insurrection was organized. Though the report was completed shortly after Zuckerberg's testimony, it essentially corroborated a report by the nonprofit advocacy group Avaaz days before he testified that found Facebook's culpability in the Capitol siege extended to well over a year before the event.
BuzzFeed reports that the internal document, assembled by an internal task force studying harmful networks, acknowledges the role of Facebook activity by "Stop the Steal" activists, as well as pro-Trump groups associated with the brief attempt to organize a "Patriot Party" split from the GOP, in the violent events of Jan. 6. It also observes that insisting on an "inauthentic behavior" standard—rather than one based on the spread of misinformation and violent speech—hindered its attempts to take the appropriate preemptive steps.
"Hindsight is 20/20, at the time, it was very difficult to know whether what we were seeing was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election, or whether it was free expression by users who were afraid and confused and deserved our empathy," reads the report. "But hindsight being 20/20 makes it all the more important to look back to learn what we can about the growth of the election delegitimizing movements that grew, spread conspiracy, and helped incite the Capitol insurrection."
"Do you care enough about the fate of the nation to ensure that your product is not used to coordinate and overthrow the government?" wondered Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, in comments to BuzzFeed.
"For me, at the end of the day, it comes down to: Do you care? Do you care enough about democracy? Do you care enough about the fate of the nation to ensure that your product is not used to coordinate and overthrow the government?" she said. "There is something about the way Facebook organizes groups that leads to massive public events. And when they're organized on the basis of misinformation, hate, incitement, and harassment, we get very violent outcomes."
The report noted that while Facebook executives were pleased "at having made it past the election without major incident," that feeling was "tempered by the rise in angry vitriol and a slew of conspiracy theories that began to steadily grow" afterwards.
Donovan observed that the Stop the Steal organizing began long before Election Day, and that Facebook's failure to prepare illustrates how poorly it is able to protect democracy. Indeed, that was largely the thrust of the Avaaz report on Facebook's culpability in the insurrection published March 18, six days before Zuckerberg testified.
The Avaaz study found that over the eight months leading up to the election, there were an estimated 10 billion views on key top-performing Facebook pages that regularly and repeatedly shared false information about the election. There was also a marked lack of moderation on those pages, allowing the "false or misleading information with the potential to cause public harm" to flourish. Those pages, the study found, saw a nearly threefold increase in interactions from October 2019—when they had 97 million—to a year later, when they had 277.9 million. It also found that nearly 100 million voters saw false voter fraud content on Facebook.
"A poll conducted in October 2020 found that 44% of registered voters reported seeing misinformation about mail-in voter fraud on Facebook (that equates to approximately 91 million registered voters)," the report states. "The polling suggests that 35% of registered voters (approximately 72 million people) believed this false claim."
This growth particularly benefited pages backing the authoritarian QAnon conspiracy cult and, later, the Stop The Steal movement. The Avaaz study found 267 groups championing violence around the election with a combined following of 32 million—nearly 70% of which had Boogaloo, QAnon, or militia-themed names and content.
Facebook's reliance on algorithmic detection played a large role in its failures to act on these pages, Avaaz noted, since the company's policies also allow misinformation on their platform if it is being spread by politicians. It noted that political ads for the Georgia election featured misinformation that had been debunked by fact checkers nonetheless being spread by Republican candidates—permissible under Facebook policy.
"The scary thing is that this is just for the top 100 pages—this is not the whole universe of misinformation," Fadi Quran, a campaign director at Avaaz, told Time. "This doesn't even include Facebook Groups, so the number is likely much bigger. We took a very, very conservative estimate in this case."
Donovan pointed to Facebook's focus on "inauthentic activity," such as people using fake accounts, as the source of its failure. This problem was manifested earlier when Facebook attempted to clamp down on QAnon pages, but failed utterly because its takedowns were based on "coordinated inauthentic behavior," which describes accounts and pages that mislead people about their identity and intentions, regardless of whether the information they spread is accurate or not.
In other words, those QAnon pages were removed not because they spread wildly false smears but because the people operating them broke Facebook's rules about false or double identities. It's a peculiarly self-serving standard that uses truthfulness in creating accounts as a proxy for truthfulness in the content being promulgated. Moreover, as Donovan told BuzzFeed, it means that Facebook can ignore how its products create coordinated activity among real people, and the harm that can result, she said.
The internal Facebook report largely acknowledges this, explaining that the social media giant was outmaneuvered by coordinated accounts that formed a powerful network of groups promoting hate, inciting violence, and spreading lies about the election.
So-called "super-inviter" accounts—highly influential activists within these far-right movements—played key roles in the ability of Stop the Steal pages to spread even after Facebook banned the original group. The largest of these pages were fueled by 137 super-inviters who recruited some 67% of their members; and that many of these people coordinated with each other, lying about their locations and using private groups to organize.
"Because we were looking at each entity individually, rather than as a cohesive movement, we were only able to take down individual Groups and Pages once they exceeded a violation threshold," the report reads. "After the Capitol Insurrection and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement."
The Avaaz report features a long list of recommendations, including reforms for the company to undertake on its own, such as "detoxing" the algorithms, submitting to audits and other forms of transparency, and proactively correcting the record when misinformation appears on its platforms. It also recommends that President Biden launch an initiative to build an anti-disinformation infrastructure.
However, given Facebook's refusal to accept culpability in the insurrection, it also makes sense for lawmakers to take steps. So the report urges an investigation into Facebook's role, both by Congress and by a proposed Jan. 6 Commission, which would "go beyond the actors involved in the insurrection, and investigate the tools they used, including Facebook's role in undermining the 2020 elections, and whether the platform's executives were aware of how it was being used as a tool to radicalize Americans and/or facilitate the mobilization of radicalized individuals to commit violence."
"This shows the company is anti-democratic at the very least," Donovan observed, "and at the very worst, it shows that they know the risks, and they know the harm that can be caused and they are not willing to do anything significant to stop it from happening again."
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