The study, published this week by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), was based on research documenting the activities of various stripes of domestic extremists, including their discussions of weapons and tactics, their calls to overthrow the government, and their organizing activities—all on Facebook. These activities eventually included the insurgent attack on the Capitol, much of it occurring in private Facebook groups that enable extremists to organize out of the public eye but with access to a mass following.
Its major takeaways:
- Militant groups had planned a nationwide effort to “back up” police on Election Day against supposed antifa and Black Lives Matter protests. The event carried the logos of the Proud Boys and anti-government militias and was circulated in private far-right Facebook groups with thousands of members.
- Self-declared “patriot” groups on Facebook have ramped up their recruiting efforts tied to the election. Some of these groups promoted the Jan. 6 event at the Capitol.
- Talk of overthrowing the U.S. government increased dramatically in Facebook groups monitored by TTP following the declaration of Biden as the winner of the 2020 vote.
- A pro-Trump Facebook group required prospective members to declare they would be willing to die for their country in order to join in what may be a sign of growing extremism.
- Calls to “occupy Congress” were rampant on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the deadly Capitol riot, making no secret of the event’s aims. Two different “occupy” event listings were written in a Nazi-style font and began circulating on Facebook in December.
- Since the insurrection, new posts promoting violence, including on Inauguration Day, have popped up on Facebook.
The report observes: “[Facebook] has spent the past year failing to remove extremist activity and election-related conspiracy theories stoked by President Trump that have radicalized a broad swath of the population and led many down a dangerous path.”
There was little mistaking the rhetoric on the private Facebook pages devoted to organizing the resistance to Trump’s election loss, which were nothing short of violent and openly seditionist—and notably, though such posts clearly violate Facebook’s terms of service, none were removed until after the violence.
“Patriots heading to DC, raise holly hell, its the only thing that Democrats understand,” wrote a member of a 9,600 member group for “Patriots” on the day before the insurrection. “If you want your country back, show them!!!”
The violent fanaticism was also self-evident: “Are [you] willing to fight or maybe even Die for YOUR COUNTRY?” administrators of a Facebook page for the Ohio Minutemen Militia asked applicants.
Facebook offered ads that seemed timed to coincide with the insurrectionists’ sudden demand for body armor, gun holsters, and a variety of military equipment, placed on pages promoting election disinformation and, subsequently, news about the storming of the Capitol. It did so, according to Buzzfeed, in the face of concerned employees’ internal warnings.
On the Facebook group pages that cater to extremist content and organizing, the TTP told Buzzfeed, ads featuring a range of defense equipment have been appearing. These include body armor plates, rifle enhancements, and shooting targets, all sold as a New Year’s special.
“Facebook has spent years facilitating fringe voices who use the platform to organize and amplify calls for violence,” said TTP Director Katie Paul. “As if that weren’t enough, Facebook’s advertising microtargeting is directing domestic extremists toward weapons accessories and armor that can make their militarized efforts more effective, all while Facebook profits.”
The evidence, as The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reports, is that Facebook’s role in the planning for the Capitol takeover was significant. Right up until Monday, Eric Feinberg of the Coalition for a Safer Web reported, a search found that 128,000 people were still talking about the #StopTheSteal hashtag under which a number of the groups organized, with many of the users coordinating their actions with each other under it.
Dozens of Republican Party-affiliated groups around the nation used Facebook to organize bus trips to the Jan. 6 protest at which Trump spoke that shortly turned into the insurrection. As Media Matters reports, some two dozen GOP officials and organizations in at least 12 states used Facebook as a platform to organize bus trips to the rally. The posts advertising the buses were unsparing in the use of incendiary rhetoric, too.
“This is a call to ALL patriots from Donald J Trump for a BIG protest in Washington DC! TAKE AMERICA BACK! BE THERE, WILL BE WILD!” wrote the New Hanover County GOP of North Carolina in a Facebook post advertising bus seats. (The phrase “be there, will be wild!” was a rallying cry by Trump to his followers for that day.)
“BUS TRIP to DC …. #StoptheSteal. If your passions are running hot and you’re intending to respond to the President’s call for his supporters to descend on DC on Jan 6, LISTEN UP!” wrote the Polk County Republican Party of North Carolina in a Facebook post.
The New York Times reviewed dozens of post histories of Facebook users active in these far-right pages and found that the same algorithmic pull that draws readers and viewers down conspiracist rabbit holes by constantly recommending increasingly extreme content to users as a means of “engagement” has a similarly powerful effect on the content providers. Social media’s perverse incentives for exaggerations, falsehoods, and deception become overwhelming for the people constantly competing for eyeballs and readers, and in the process can transform people into raging extremists.
As the story observes, content providers are seduced by the initial rewards for drawing large numbers to their posts, but the personal and social costs can be enormous. The conspiracy-mongers alienate family, friends, and workmates, and frequently lead isolated lives in which their only social contact is with other conspiracists online.
Moreover, the rest of us wind up paying as well, as the story notes: “The influencers amass followers, enhance their reputations, solicit occasional donations and maybe sell a few T-shirts. The rest of us are left with democracy buckling under the weight of citizens living an alternate reality.” The Times’ review of the feeds “suggested that those who’d made a sharp pivot to sharing misinformation were similar in their desire to cultivate a public persona.”
The report focuses on a man who became increasingly radicalized by the conspiracist realm he was slowly drawn into, by his own admission for increased followers and clicks, but also by the spiraling hysteria created by election disinformation. Eventually, after the Stop the Steal hashtag was banned from social media, he began operating a knockoff designed to provide a new organizing space for Stop the Steal devotees. It too was eventually removed from Facebook.
But that was not the end of it:
Days later, in his chat room, one woman claimed she ran a multistate group interested in far-right militia tactics. She was recruiting members of Win the Win, and Mr. McGee could join if he passed a thorough interview and background check. He could even become the captain of his local chapter.
“We’re ready for anything. We have tons of gas masks. Tons of bullets. Tons of magazines. Tons of A.R.s,” she said, referring to semiautomatic rifles. “Anybody who’s interested, hit me up. Hit me up on Facebook.”