As social media companies announced bans on President Donald Trump, they avoided taking a similar hard line on content praising Wednesday’s attempted coup or cracking down on groups where extremist organizing takes place.
A search on Facebook for the words “Stop the Steal,” a rallying cry that the mob who forced Congress to flee chanted, turned up dozens of places where new plots could be coordinated. There are at least 66 groups dedicated to the slogan, the largest of which has over 14,000 members. That group is private, meaning nonmembers can’t access the content, but its description is unambiguous: “to make aware the issues of fraudulent voting practices and Fraudulent ballot counting. also, to make these issues transparent for all!”
Several of these groups were created after the election. The 14,000-member group was created on Nov. 6. Another, with nearly 10,000 members, was started on Nov. 29, and another that has 8,000 members on Dec. 10.
After this story was published, a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “We removed the original Stop the Steal group in November and continue to remove additional Pages and groups that violate our policies.”
Researchers have long warned that Facebook groups serve as breeding grounds for extremism.
“Disabling President Trump’s account is like pulling out the top of a weed without pulling out the roots,” said Nina Jankowicz, author of How to Lose the Information War. “Yes, the president incited his followers to violence this week, but they were primed for it by the content they had been fed over months or years in private and closed groups like Stop the Steal on social media. This is where malign narratives spread, out of the eyes of content moderators and researchers, and it’s what led to this week’s mob at the Capitol.”
A search on Thursday for Facebook events titled “Stop the Steal” also turned up 72 different results, with dozens more having taken place over the last months. Many of the events weren’t very popular — most had only a handful of attendees — but they followed the same tone as the groups.
“We cannot allow this election to be stolen from President Trump and we must do our part!!” one event page promoting a protest in Colorado held on Jan. 6 said.
“Please make signs like- ‘Stop the Steal’, ‘Our mayor’s corrupt’, ‘Avoid the Appearance of Evil’, ‘Amaad Rivera-Stay Out of Green Bay Elections’, ‘Genrich-Partisan & Dishonest’, We stand with Trump’, etc…” said another event in Wisconsin.
On Twitter, conversation related to the violence on Capitol Hill also didn’t halt, according to Advance Democracy, a nonprofit research organization. According to its analysis, “there have been more than 1,480 posts from QAnon-related accounts on Twitter about January 6th that contain terms of violence since January 1, 2021.”
In response to the riot, Twitter began marking violent tweets for human review and blocks violent terms from trends and search results, the company said.
“Our teams have been working proactively to protect the public conversation and enforce the Twitter Rules. We’ve taken enforcement action on thousands of accounts that were attempting to undermine the public conversation and cause real-world harm. This is a rapidly evolving situation. We will continue to be vigilant and track it closely — on and off Twitter,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Trump supporters organizing violence on social media is nothing new. But Wednesday’s attempted coup highlights the role social media companies play in amplifying hoaxes, disinformation, and propaganda, and the consequences of that amplification going largely unchecked.