Facebook says it didn’t realize that “Stop the Steal” was “a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election,” despite loud warnings from researchers and journalists
A leaked internal memo details Facebook’s failure to recognize harmful coordination and reveals the extent of data that the platform has access to — and refuses to share
BuzzFeed News published an internal memo from Facebook employees on Tuesday, detailing the amount of data the company had about the spread of the “Stop the Steal” campaign prior to the events of January 6. Despite this mountain of evidence, the authors of the review, which Facebook conducted in light of its clear failings, claimed that they could not have known “whether what we were seeing was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election.” But with the amount of warnings from misinformation researchers about this very thing, it’s hard to interpret this claim as anything but willful ignorance or dishonesty.
The “Stop the Steal” movement is a well-funded and networked voter suppression effort to create doubts about the legitimacy of our election system. The movement dates back to 2016, as noted by Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, the organization running the Stop Digital Voter Suppression campaign. Mitchell and others have been reporting on the dangers of this kind of online voter suppression for just as long. In the leaked memo, Facebook claimed to have noticed the campaign only when the “first Stop the Steal Group emerged on election night,” even though then-President Donald Trump and his allies had used the platform for months to push claims that the election would be rigged and that supporters should be prepared to take action.
The memo also reiterated a point social media researchers are too familiar with – that social media policies are just too vague to be useful. The authors even admitted that the platform has “little policy around coordinated authentic harm.” Despite the company's access to a broad range of data indicating the groups were dangerous, it claimed it was unclear “that there was enough harm to constitute designating the term” for closer moderation. This memo is exemplary of the company hiding behind intentionally vague content moderation policies to shield itself from accountability, something we’ve seen time and time again.
From the leaked internal Facebook memo:
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 protected free expression by users who were afraid and confused and deserved our empathy. 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.
The first Stop the Steal Group emerged on election night. It was flagged for escalation because it contained high levels of hate and violence and incitement (VNI) in the comments. The Group was disabled, and an investigation was kicked off, looking for early signs of coordination and harm across the new Stop the Steal Groups that were quickly sprouting up to replace it. With our early signals, it was unclear that coordination was taking place, or that there was enough harm to constitute designating the term. It wasn’t until later that it became clear just how much of a focal point the catchphrase would be, and that they would serve as a rallying point around which a movement of violent election delegitimization could coalesce.
But even working within the framework of the vague policies that Facebook has set forth, it is remarkable that employees could credibly claim that “it was unclear that coordination was taking place” with the organizing of “Stop the Steal” on the platform. This claim is particularly galling as the memo also detailed the range of data that Facebook employees have access to that independent misinformation researchers and journalists do not, particularly data about private groups. This includes data on group membership overlap, super-inviters, direct coordination, growth and amplification, and rates of hate speech, violence, and incitement. This is the information that researchers, journalists, and activists — who clearly identified “Stop the Steal” and similar movements as a threat — do not have.
Although Facebook did take some action against “Stop the Steal” groups by taking down some of them, the memo reveals how shoddy and ineffective those efforts were, noting that “backup Groups replaced disabled Groups” — a common tactic that misinformation researchers have warned Facebook about. Facebook also reportedly implemented limitations on group invites for users, in an attempt to limit super-inviters and stop the growth of “Stop the Steal” groups. But the memo admitted “the groups were regardless able to grow substantially.”
Before January 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, Media Matters and others (all without access to the substantial data available to Facebook employees) had reported extensively on the presence of election misinformation and “Stop the Steal” on Facebook:
- On November 4, Media Matters reported on the spread of #StopTheSteal and its connection to right-wing figures.
- On November 5, Media Matters reported that there were at least 34 groups and 39 events on Facebook that were dedicated to spreading the baseless claim that Democrats are trying to “steal” the election.
- On November 5, The New York Times reported that dozens of new “Stop the Steal” groups were created after Facebook removed the initial Stop the Steal group.
- On November 6, HuffPost reported that “Stop the Steal” groups with tens of thousands of members were proliferating on Facebook even though these groups “promoted real-world demonstrations throughout the country, spread disinformation about voter fraud and election-rigging, and encouraged the use of violence to keep Trump in office.”
- On November 10, the Associated Press reported that roughly 5 million mentions of voter fraud and “stop the steal” were made across social media and online news sites in the week after the election. The article also noted that pro-Trump supporters were “using [Facebook] to organize ‘Stop the Steal’ rallies.”
- On November 14, CNN reported “Stop the Steal” pages and groups on Facebook “had amassed 2.5 million followers, according to an analysis by activist group Avaaz" and had "seeded a jungle of misinformation that is being shared -- and believed -- by millions of Americans.”
- On November 20, OneZero reported that two large “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups, with nearly 100,000 members combined, were “actively promoting ‘Stop the Steal’ propaganda, weeks after the platform banned similar groups for attempting to delegitimize the election process and potentially inciting physical violence.”
- On November 20, The Verge reported that “hundreds of Stop the Steal groups — some private, some public, some hyperlocal — were alive and well on Facebook.”
- On December 21, Media Matters reported on international “Stop the Steal” events, including one that was organized and promoted on Facebook by the Epoch Media Group, publisher of the fringe right-wing outlet The Epoch Times.
- On January 5, Media Matters warned that users in private Facebook groups were encouraging each other to break Washington, D.C., gun laws ahead of the protests scheduled for January 6.
The harm associated with “Stop the Steal” groups was also clear as there was substantial reporting of their affiliation with right-wing operatives and the violence breaking out at their events across the country:
- On November 5, the Daily Beast reported that the initial Stop the Steal group was affiliated with longtime Republican and right-wing figures.
- On November 7, MotherJones reported right-wing figures, including Ali Alexander, Mike Cernovich, Amy Kremer, Jack Posobiec, Mike Coudrey, and Scott Presler, were involved in organizing “Stop the Steal” protests across the country.
- On November 7 and 8, local outlets reported unrest at “Stop the Steal” protests in Portland, Oregon.
- On November 14, NBC News reported that violence broke out after a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C.
- On November 30, Salon reported on a “Stop the Steal” rally in Raleigh, North Carolina that involved Stop the Steal NC, Latinos for Freedom, Reopen NC, and the Proud Boys.
- On December 8, Business Insider reported, “An armed ‘Stop the Steal’ mob descended on the home of Michigan's Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson this weekend, threatening her over her role in overseeing election results.”
After the January 6 insurrection, Media Matters did additional reporting about “Stop the Steal” activity on Facebook leading up to the riots. Given the wealth of internal data that Facebook has access to, it would appear the platform either missed or willfully ignored many warning signs:
- On January 12, Media Matters reported that “‘Stop the Steal’ organizers used Facebook and Instagram to promote events, including the rally that led to a mob breaching the Capitol.”
- On January 12, Media Matters reported, “Dozens of Republican Party groups used Facebook to help organize bus trips to DC for pro-Trump insurrection.”
- On January 13, Media Matters reported that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) used her official and personal Facebook pages to promote slogans related to “stop the steal” and related terms or at least 69 times between Election Day and January 6.
- On February 18, Media Matters reported that Trump mentioned “stop the steal” at least 10 times on Facebook between January 1, 2020, and January 6, 2021, with some of these posts directly promoting “Stop the Steal” events.
- On March 1, Media Matters reported on at least 1,000 posts with discussion related to election fraud from The Epoch Times’ Facebook pages between Election Day and January 6.
Facebook clearly hasn’t learned much from its mistakes, as evidenced by its poor handling of anti-vaccine groups as recently as this week. The company has admitted awareness of the tactics used to spread misinformation — rapid group recruitment, ban evasion, name changes, and more. That Facebook is aware of these factors and still is seemingly caught by surprise when the platform is used to organize events and activities that incur material harm increasingly appears to be willful. If Facebook is serious about addressing the spread of misinformation, the policies and processes used to address and prevent these issues need to account for the reality of how misinformation is disseminated on the platform. Otherwise Facebook’s commitments to combating misinformation and harassment will remain nothing more than empty platitudes.