Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Facebook’s failures with election misinformation contributed to the deadly Capitol insurrection. A year later, the platform has failed to fix its problems.

Media Matters’ latest analysis has identified hundreds of active posts and Facebook groups still pushing “Stop the Steal” lies

Following the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Facebook vowed to reduce election misinformation and prevent further incitement of violence by removing harmful content and suspending former President Donald Trump. But Media Matters’ latest analysis found that in the year since the January 6 attack, Facebook has not only repeatedly failed to moderate “Stop the Steal” content, baseless claims of election fraud, and other election misinformation, but its algorithm and other features have enabled such content to flourish.

Key findings:

  • Right-leaning pages earned a greater proportion of interactions on election-related posts in the year after the January 6 insurrection than in the year before. In fact, these pages earned over 2 billion interactions -- or 54% of total interactions on election-related content -- on nearly 570,000 posts between January 7 and December 31, 2021. 
  • There are still at least 484 posts referencing “stop the steal” or “sts” still active on Facebook that were created by right-leaning Facebook pages in the year leading up to the insurrection, earning over 2.6 million interactions. 
  • Since January 7, 2021, another 238 posts with “stop the steal” or “sts” were posted by right-leaning pages and remain on the platform. These posts have earned over 415,000 interactions combined.
  • As of January 3, there were at least 203 groups spreading election misinformation and blatant conspiracy theories, with nearly 240,000 combined members; 18 of them specifically include “Stop the Steal” or mention a “stolen election” in their name.
  • How Facebook failed to stop election misinformation before, during, and after the 2020 election

  • On November 17, 2020, just weeks after the presidential election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted that Facebook’s “systems performed well” during the election cycle, ignoring the platform’s litany of failures related to election misinformation before and after Joe Biden was elected. In December 2020, Facebook removed the “break glass” measures it had implemented during the campaign to boost authoritative sources and reduce election misinformation -- a move which seemingly contributed to the insurrection on January 6.

    While Facebook had claimed victory, the company failed to recognize what it later called “a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election.” Even more embarrassing for the platform, Facebook researchers clearly had access to troves of data evincing the danger these efforts posed -- even while Media Matters and other external researchers and journalists were sounding the alarm. But Facebook still claimed ignorance when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop the certification of the election.

    The deadly insurrection on January 6 was aided, in part, by Facebook’s litany of failures before, during, and after the election, which include:

    • Allowing Trump and other right-wing pages to push harmful election misinformation -- and other misinformation and extreme rhetoric -- with impunity. Notably, Trump posted 433 times with election-related keywords between November 3, 2020, and November 2, 2021, earning over 176 million interactions, even as 75% of them featured at least one of Facebook's 18 different labels related to the election. Additionally, roughly a quarter of Trump's 6,081 Facebook posts that were created between January 1, 2020, and January 6, 2021, contained COVID-19 misinformation, election lies, or extreme rhetoric about his critics.
    • Failing to enforce its political ad ban and allowing right-wing pages to continue to run political ads with misinformation. Between November 4 and December 8, 2020 -- while the ban was in place -- Facebook enabled right-wing outlet The Daily Wire to earn millions of impressions on 24 political ads before finally removing them. There were another 50 ads that appeared to address social issues, elections, or politics, but ran without a disclaimer to circumvent the platform’s ban.
    • Failing to moderate “Stop the Steal” content, even after January 6, when the platform announced it would remove content with the phrase. Between Election Day and January 13, “Sedition Caucus” members -- the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the election results after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol -- mentioned keywords related to “Stop the Steal” a total of 193 times on Facebook.
    • Earning revenue from ads with election misinformation even after January 6. On November 1 -- nearly 10 months after the January 6 insurrection -- Media Matters found at least 46 ads on Facebook and Instagram calling to “decertify” the 2020 election. The ads earned over 8 million impressions.

    In 2021, Facebook failed to effectively tackle election misinformation and penalize bad actors pushing it. Instead, the company has seemingly prioritized profit and positive PR over addressing the problems that made its platform a hotbed for fomenting political violence. One year after the deadly Capitol riot, these failures continue.

  • FAILURE: Right-leaning pages earned more interactions on election-related posts than other political pages -- including by spreading known election misinformation

  • Media Matters and other researchers have demonstrated again and again that there is no bias or censorship against conservatives on Facebook, despite right-wing claims to the contrary. In fact, right-leaning pages actually benefit from Facebook’s algorithm, which rewards sensational, divisive, and false content -- and the platform continued to disproportionately benefit right-wing content about voting and elections even after the Capitol attack.

    Between January 7 and December 31, 2021, right-leaning Facebook pages that cover U.S. news and politics posted about election-related topics more frequently than left-leaning or ideologically nonaligned pages, making nearly 570,000 posts, or almost 44% of the total. Notably, right-leaning pages also earned the most interactions -- over 2 billion, or 54%. Left-leaning pages earned over 1.1 billion interactions (31%) on nearly 300,000 election-related posts, while ideologically nonaligned pages earned nearly 560 million interactions (15%) on over 430,000 such posts.

    A similar pattern occurred in the year before the insurrection, as right-leaning pages earned over 3.2 billion interactions on over 750,000 election-related posts created between January 6, 2020, and January 6, 2021 -- earning roughly 50% of total interactions on just over 40% of such posts. Left-leaning pages earned nearly 32% of total interactions on over 25% of election-related posts during this time, and ideologically nonaligned pages earned almost 18% of total interactions on nearly 25% of such posts.

  • Interactions on election-related posts from Facebook pages posting about U.S. political news before and after the Capitol insurrection
  • FAILURE: Facebook continues to platform numerous posts from right-leaning pages about “Stop the Steal”

  • In response to the January 6 Capitol attack, Facebook vowed to remove posts with the phrase “stop the steal” under its Coordinating Harm policy, including retroactive removal. However, Facebook used a very narrow interpretation of its policy, allowing many posts and groups with similar language about a “stolen election” to remain active on the platform. On January 28, 2020, Media Matters reported that over 150 Facebook groups focused on election fraud had avoided removal, including 23 groups that mentioned “stop the steal” or used similar language about a “stolen election” in their name or within posts.

    A year after the January 6 attack, there are still posts with the phrase circulating on Facebook. In fact, we found at least 484 posts with “stop the steal” or “sts” that were created by right-leaning pages in the year before the riot -- between January 6, 2020, and January 6, 2021 -- that Facebook has failed to remove. These posts earned over 2.6 million interactions. Notably, the top 10 “Stop the Steal” posts from this time frame with the most interactions were either posted by Trump, his campaign, or right-wing outlet Newsmax. Five of these posts were from Trump and his campaign. 

    Donald Trump_facebook post_20201212

    Donald Trump_facebook post_20210101

    Donald Trump_facebook post_20201121

    Team Trump_facebook post_20210106

    Team Trump_facebook post_20210106

  • Additionally, between January 7 and December 31, 2021, right-leaning pages made 238 posts mentioning “stop the steal” or “sts,” which earned over 415,000 interactions combined. These include at least 40 posts that push election misinformation, criticize Facebook for banning the phrase, or contain misinformation about the insurrection.

    Nick Adams_facebook post_20210210

    Lance Wallnau_facebook post_20211122

    Trey Gowdy_facebook post_20210521

    Mindy Robinson_facebook post_20210323

    LifeZette Faith_facebook post_20210112

    Women for Trump_facebook post_20210111

  • FAILURE: There are still hundreds of groups filled with election misinformation on Facebook

  • Two days after Election Day 2020, it was clear that Facebook was already having problems. The platform took down one of the biggest “Stop the Steal” groups at approximately 300,000 members, and it added labels to posts discussing election results. However, like many of Facebook’s actions to stem misinformation, this was too little too late. By then, groups were proliferating on the platform, finding ways around Facebook’s moderation, and using the platform to organize and prepare for violence on January 6. 

    A year later, election misinformation continues to spread in private and public Facebook groups as administrators only gained more power to evade content moderation. 

    In October 2021, we identified 203 active groups dedicated to pushing election misinformation -- and that number has increased since then. As of January 3, there are still 203 groups spreading election misinformation and conspiracy theories, with nearly 240,000 members; 18 of them specifically use variations of “stop the steal” or mention a “stolen election” in their name. Another 15 groups spreading election misinformation during that time have since been archived -- meaning that members have access to posts in the groups but can no longer create new ones.

    While some of these groups are still focused on the 2020 presidential election, others have pivoted to combat so-called “election fraud” in state-level elections. For example, “NJ Election Integrity Project” has spread misinformation about the 2021 gubernatorial race. It is perhaps Facebook's biggest failures that it has let misinformation about 2020 election seep into 2021 and beyond.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters used the following method to compile and analyze election-related posts from political pages on Facebook: 

    Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled a list of 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1 to August 25, 2020.

    For an explanation of how we compiled pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here

    The resulting list consisted of 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages.

    Every day, Media Matters also uses Facebook's CrowdTangle tool and this methodology to identify and share the 10 posts with the most interactions from top political and news-related Facebook pages.

    Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled all posts for the pages on this list that were posted between January 6, 2020, and December 31, 2021, related to elections and voting. We reviewed data for these posts, including total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares).

    We defined posts as related to elections and voting if they had any of the following terms in the message or in the included link, article headline, or article description: “ballot,” “biden,” “democrats,” “dems,” “election,” “general chatter about voting,” “poll watcher,” “polling place,” “polling station,” “republicans,” “the election,” “trump,” “vote,” “voted,” “your state,” “election results,” “rigged,” “election integrity,” “voter,” “voter fraud,” “electoral college,” “ballots,” “certifying,” “chosen electors,” “corrupt,” “corruption,” “count,” “decertification,” “decertify,” “decertifying,” “democratic process,” “dominion,” “election,” “election fraud,” “election victory,” “electoral college,” “found ballots,” “stolen election,” “stop the steal,” “vote dump,” “vote tabulation,” “voter dump,” “voter fraud,” “voter tabulation,” “voting,” “mail-in ballot,” “mail-in box,” “election box,” “election machines,” “stopthesteal,” “#stopthesteal,” “2020 election,” “election 2020,” “mail in ballots,” “mail-in ballots,” “mail in ballot,” “mail-in ballot,” “integrity hearings,” “integrity hearing,” “fraud hearing,” or “fraud hearing.”