BuzzFeed has posted the entirety of internal Facebook documents outlining in detail the results of the company’s investigation into its role in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, during and after which at least five people died.
The report, which was first reported in detail by BuzzFeed last week, found that Facebook played a key role in the explosive growth of the “Stop the Steal” movement, a group of diehard Donald Trump supporters that rallied around the ex-president’s conspiracy theories about his 2020 election loss. Members of the movement, alongside overlapping groups such as QAnon, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the vote.
The authors assessed that Facebook failed to recognize that groups such as Stop the Steal and the Patriot Party were part of an “adversarial harmful movement” and thus only moderated associated Groups and Pages in a “piecemeal” fashion. Facebook also conceded that its focus on fake and “inauthentic” activity blinded it to harm being organized on the site by people under their real identities. The lack of a coordinated, sitewide response came despite months of warnings from Facebook staff that Groups on the site were becoming vehicles for extremism.
According to BuzzFeed, the authors of the report uploaded it to Facebook’s internal message boards last month, where it was widely circulated among and read by staff. But after BuzzFeed’s report last week, Facebook yanked it from circulation with the official explanation the authors “never intended to publish this as a final document to the whole company” and had only “inadvertently” made it accessible to employees outside a working group on the issue.
So BuzzFeed posted the whole report on Monday. It describes confusion at the company whether the Stop the Steal circus “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.” The first Stop the Steal group created on the night of the election contained “high levels of hate and violence and incitement (VNI) in the comments,” the authors wrote that 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.” By the time Facebook got around to deleting that first group on Nov. 5, BuzzFeed wrote, it had swollen to 300,000 members and spawned innumerable copycats.
The report noted evidence that white supremacists, hate groups, and militias were involved in coordinating the Stop the Steal effort both on and off Facebook. It also found that a relatively small number of people were clearly trying to supercharge the movement by flooding the site with invites to related Groups, a tactic known as growth hacking: “30% of invites came from just 0.3% of inviters,” according to the report, and many of these “super-inviters” were admins on other related Groups, clearly indicating coordination between them.
“We were not able to act on simple objects like posts and comments because they individually tended not to violate, even if they were surrounded by hate, violence, and misinformation,” the report added. “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.”
Facebook implemented limits on the number of invites that individual users could send, but the report notes this was clearly ineffective and Groups were “regardless able to grow substantially.” Furthermore, there were high levels of interaction between the users engaging with Stop the Steal content the most, adding to the evidence. These amplifiers posted significantly more hate speech and threats of violence than even the rest of the Stop the Steal movement, driving it to more extremes.
The Facebook report also name-drops specific far-right activists that Facebook failed to rein in, such as Ali Alexander, one of the main organizers of the rally preceding the failed insurrection who has a long history of working with extremists such as the neo-fascist Proud Boys. It also mentioned the Kremer sisters, who run the event’s official host Women for America First and one of whose names appeared on the rally permits.
“The terms Stop the Steal and Patriot Party were amplified both on platform and off,” the report states. “Ali Alexander and the Kremer sisters repeated slogans at rallies, and spread them through super Groups like Women4Trump and Latinos for Trump. The Kremer Sisters were admins of both Women4Trump, and the original Stop the Steal Group. After January 6th, Amy Kremer confirmed on platform that she was an organizer for the Stop the Steal rally that precipitated the Capitol Insurrection.”
“Ali Alexander worked on and off platform, using media appearances and celebrity endorsements,” it continued. “We also observed him formally organizing with others to spread the term, including with other users who had ties to militias. He was able to elude detection and enforcement with careful selection of words, and by relying on disappearing stories.”
The authors wrote in their key findings that Facebook’s “early focus on individual violations made us miss the harm in the broader network,” messy moderation tools made it hard to count how many strikes each Group was racking up, and the company has “little policy around coordinated authentic harm.”
Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told BuzzFeed that Facebook appeared to have been caught off guard because it was more focused on the type of hoaxes, spam, and interference operations that it bungled during the 2016 elections.
“In 2016, you had to engineer lots of fake engagement and stories because the networks were not mature enough,” Donovan said. “It’s only after you have four years of MAGA and the Trump caravan and the anti-vaxxers meeting up with the militia groups during the pandemic that you start to see these networks become agile, extensible, and adaptable to the moment.”
“...There is something about the way Facebook organizes groups that leads to massive public events,” Donovan added. “And when they’re organized on the basis of misinformation, hate, incitement, and harassment, we get very violent outcomes.”