Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg dismissed any claims that her social network was responsible for organizing the “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington, D.C. last week that descended into a violent attack on the Capitol that left five people dead.
“I think these events were 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,” Sandberg told the Reuters Next conference on Monday.
But at the very moment Sandberg made these comments, there were at least 60 “Stop the Steal” groups active on Facebook, some with tens of thousands of members and millions of interactions.
And hours before Sandberg spoke, Ali Alexander, the self-described organizer of the Washington protest last week, was openly posting about further threats to come on his Instagram account on Monday.
Alexander had been spreading fear mongering posts on social media right up to the Jan. 6 event.
Alexander’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were subsequently suspended on Monday.
But he was just one of thousands of Facebook and Instagram users who were sharing incendiary content under the #stopthesteal banner. Like this post from Jan. 5, posted by the conspiracy website TruNews — which has 120,000 Facebook followers — that features a short clip from a pro-Trump protester who said “I won’t rule out storming the Capitol if the president orders.”
The post was shared with the #stopthesteal hashtag.
Within hours of Sandberg’s comments, Facebook announced that now, ten weeks after the election and five days after the violent attack on the Capitol, was the time to ban “content containing the phrase ‘stop the steal’ ahead of the inauguration.”
In a blog post, Facebook’s vice president of integrity Guy Rosen said that the company started planning for the inauguration a year ago, but “took on new urgency” only after last week’s violence.
This seems a bit odd, given that Facebook itself had removed a massive Stop the Steal group organized by GOP activists in the days after November’s election.
Despite that cull, Facebook has allowed “Stop the Steal” groups to flourish and organize events across the country since. Facebook’s excuse for this is that it has been “allowing robust conversations related to the election outcome,” adding that this will continue.
Experts say Sandberg’s claim that the “stop the steal” movement didn’t mobilize on Facebook is just not true.
“Facebook’s decision came too late,” Ciarán O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News. “Activism centered around efforts to ‘stop the steal,’ that is, to stop the supposed theft of the election from Donald Trump from Biden’s legitimate victory, were central to the promotion and mobilization of pro-Trump protests in DC in November, December, and last Wednesday too. Much of this took place on Facebook.”
On Tuesday morning, there were still at least a dozen public “Stop the Steal” groups still active on Facebook, according to the BBC Monitoring team, with a number of private groups also operating.
But those planning violent protests are not just using the “stop the steal” phrase. On the “Delaware Citizens for the 2nd Amendment” Facebook page, one post urged followers to “come armed” to a protest in honor of Ashli Babbit, the Air Force veteran and QAnon supporter who was shot dead by Capitol Police during the insurrection last week.
Facebook announced last week that it was suspending President Donald Trump’s account “indefinitely” but, just like Twitter’s permanent ban, that move has likely come too late.
Facebook allowed these groups to build sizable communities and gave them time to prepare backup groups on other platforms — like Gab and Telegram — before kicking them off, meaning the groups will continue to organize on other platforms.
One “Stop the Steal” group on Gab already has 118,000 members.
This week the FBI and the Capitol Police have been privately briefing police forces and members of Congress about groups organizing armed protests in Washington and across the country using online platforms.
“The insurrection at the Capitol was organized on Facebook, the evidence was in plain sight for two months,” Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook turned critic of the company, tweeted in response to Sandberg’s comments.