At 2:25 p.m. on Jan. 5, almost exactly 24 hours before the Capitol riots began, Steve Bannon posted a Facebook update:
“TAKE ACTION. THEY ARE TRYING TO STEAL THE ELECTION,” the former senior White House adviser urged his followers in a Facebook group he ran called “Own Your Vote.”
Bannon’s Facebook group was set up two days after the election, on Nov. 5, but it was originally called “Stop the Steal.” Bannon changed the name a day later after Facebook had shut down another group of the same name that had amassed hundreds of thousands of new followers in a single day.
While other pages linked to Bannon were taken down by Facebook in November, his “Own Your Vote” group was allowed to operate unimpeded. It promoted baseless conspiracy theories that the election had been stolen, as well as QAnon conspiracy theories.
The group was promoting these unfounded conspiracies at the same time President Donald Trump reportedly sought out Bannon’s advice on how to overturn the election result, Bloomberg reported Thursday.
Earlier this week, ten weeks after the election and five days after the Capitol riots, Facebook finally said it was banning “content containing the phrase ‘stop the steal.’” But such a narrow focus on a single phrase means that dozens of groups went under the radar.
On Thursday, digital rights nonprofit Avaaz published a new report detailing 90 groups still on the platform that spread “debunked claims of voter fraud and election rigging throughout the election cycle.”
These public and private groups had a total membership of 166,000. The 50 public groups had 200,572 total interactions in the last week alone. As well as Bannon’s group, six other groups had initially used the “Stop the Steal” name before changing it to something else.
The groups used names like “STOP THE FRAUD,” “Stop the coup,” “stop the rigged election,” “Sue The Government Stop The Fake Election 3.0,” “2020 Election is a FRAUD,” and “The great 2020 election theft.”
Some of the groups identified by Avaaz do not have names that explicitly call the election results into question, but contain language in their posts or “About” sections that does.
For instance, the description of a group called “Joe Biden will NEVER be my President” says: "We, as American citizens, WILL NOT accept a fraudulent, stolen Election!”
“The violence on Capitol Hill showed us that what happens on Facebook does not stay on Facebook,” Fadi Quran, Avaaz campaign director, said in an emailed statement.
“Last Wednesday, viral lies cost American lives and almost set our democracy aflame. This week, Facebook announced it will do more and moved to ban those spreading ‘stop the steal’ disinformation. Our findings suggest the platform is, again, not doing enough.”
Following the publication of Avaaz’s report, some of the groups it identified have been removed and Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told VICE News that “to date, we’ve banned over 250 white supremacist groups,” though he didn’t say it those were specifically linked to the Capitol Hill riots.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced strong criticism — externally and from his own employees — when he said that a video of Bannon calling for the beheading of FBI Director Christopher Wray and the government’s infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci “didn’t cross the line.”
This week Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg denied that Facebook played a major part in the Capitol Hill riots, saying it was “largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”
But as Avaaz’s report shows, Facebook clearly didn’t have a good handle on the extent of the lies being spread on its own network. And there has been ample other evidence produced this week to undermine Sandberg’s claim.
On Thursday, the New York Times published a report that showed how individuals, including at least one who attended the Jan. 6 riot, were radicalized specifically on Facebook and Instagram.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s own data scientists were aware that calls for violence were rising before and during the Jan. 6 attack, based on internal documents.
On the afternoon in question, reports of violent content on the platforms "jumped more than 10-fold from the morning” the documents said.
And finally, Reuters reported that Facebook’s inability to contain these lies and violent rhetoric has led to widespread threats against next week’s inauguration in the capital proliferating on the platform.
“Instead of belated piecemeal steps, Zuckerberg must take his platform’s failures seriously and move to downrank serial misinformers, remove actors and content that pose an imminent threat to the safety of Americans, and retroactively inform all users when they’ve been exposed to misinformation,” Quran said.
“Without these steps, tragic events like the insurrection we saw in DC could become a mainstay of President-elect Biden’s first term."