Update, 1/14: A trio of new reports make clear that contrary to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s position, individuals were using Facebook to plan violence before last week’s insurrection at the US Capitol—and that users are still doing so today.
The New York Times today published a report looking at individuals, including at least one who attended the January 6 rally at the Capitol, who were radicalized specifically on Facebook and Instagram. Simply put, many users whose earlier content tended toward the bland and anodyne saw massive spikes in engagement—way more likes and comments—from other users when they began sharing conspiracy theories alleging the 2020 election was “stolen” or other Qanon-style content.
Many users “transformed seemingly overnight,” according to the NYT review. “A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today. A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies.”
Data scientists and executives inside the company were aware that violence was proliferating on Facebook and Instagram before and during the events of January 6, according to the Wall Street Journal. Reports of violent content on the platforms that afternoon “jumped more than 10-fold from the morning,” according to internal documents WSJ reporters reviewed.
During the chaotic afternoon, the WSJ reports, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer urged employees to “hang in there,” while the company worked out how “to allow for peaceful discussion and organizing but not calls for violence.”
Some employees, however, were unmoved by this plea for patience. “All due respect, but haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” one reportedly responded. “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s now out of control.”
Violent rhetoric on Facebook remains a major problem today, Reuters reports, with threats against the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden proliferating.
A Facebook spokesperson, who asked not to be named for “security reasons,” told Reuters that the insurrection at the Capitol appeared to be a “galvanizing event,” and efforts on Facebook to bring Trump supporters back to Washington, DC, next week are now widespread. “Signals Facebook tracked included digital flyers promoting the events, some of them featuring calls to arms or the insignia of militias or hate groups,” Reuters reports.
Several Facebook events, pages, and groups designed to bring crowds of Trump supporters to the Capitol around Biden’s inauguration that we reported on below on Tuesday are still active on the site as of Thursday.
Original story, 1/12:
Facebook executive leaders promise they are doing everything they can to prevent the platform from being a tool for an anticipated new wave of violence in the nation’s capital in the upcoming days. At the same time, however, content threatening violence is still up on Facebook, and those same executives are downplaying how big a role the platform had in last week’s events at the US Capitol.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a livestreamed interview with Reuters Monday in which she said President Donald Trump is not likely to get his Facebook account reinstated following the company’s “indefinite” ban.
“Even the president is not above the polices we have,” Sandberg said. “We have no plans to let him [back] in.”
But even though she reiterated that the president was banned specifically for fomenting violence on the platform, Sandberg downplayed the role Facebook may have had in bringing the mob to the Capitol in the first place.
“We know this was organized online,” Sandberg told Reuters. “We took down QAnon, Proud Boys, Stop the Steal—anything that was talking about possible violence last week. Our enforcement’s never perfect, so I’m sure there were still things on Facebook, [but] 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.”
Still, she added, “Certainly, to this day, we are working to find any single mention that might be linked to this and making sure we get it down as quickly as possible.”
It is true that a great deal of planning the various groups and individuals did last week took place on less-mainstream communication platforms, such as Parler, Telegram, Gab, 4chan, and dedicated pro-Trump forums. However, the insurrectionists responsible for the attack were not exclusively on those platforms—and the mainstream political figures who egged them on were explicitly present on mainstream platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.
Facebook clearly knows it has a problem with violent users and content; otherwise, the platform wouldn’t have needed to take the actions it has taken this week.
Chief among those supporters of the mob was Trump himself, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged last week when Facebook deleted a few of Trump’s posts and suspended his account.
Trump’s decision to use Facebook “to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect—and likely their intent—would be to provoke further violence.”
Facebook is also apparently quietly concerned that violence may spill over into retaliation against company employees. Facebook’s security team this week told workers to “avoid wearing or carrying Facebook-branded items at this time.” The Information was first to report on the message, which was seemingly aimed at reducing the chance of Facebook employees becoming targets.
As part of its “preparations” for Inauguration Day, Facebook on Monday said it would ban the phrase “stop the steal,” a rallying cry used by those who don’t (or don’t want to) believe in the fact that President-elect Joe Biden won the election (a group that includes President Trump).
The company added:
We’ve had emergency measures in place since before the US elections such as not recommending civic groups for people to join. Last week, we implemented several additional ones, including increasing the requirement of Group admins to review and approve posts before they can go up, automatically disabling comments on posts in Groups that start to have a high rate of hate speech or content that incites violence, and using AI to further demote content that likely violates our policies. We’re keeping these measures in place.
“Any single mention”
Facebook, however, is clearly failing to go after “any single mention” of statements that could provoke or contribute to further violence, despite its increased efforts.
A cursory search of Facebook “events” in and near Washington, DC, next week brought up several gatherings and demonstrations that seem designed to interfere with Biden’s inauguration. Some are planned over the weekend, in the days ahead of the event, while others call for participants to gather at the Capitol on January 20—Inauguration Day itself.
The same quick, cursory, five-minute search also brought up a half-dozen private groups that say they plan to bring together “patriots” to march on Washington during the week of the Inauguration, as well as one public group where members were posting threatening content such as a picture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), with the text, “WHY can’t ‘someone’ shut this POS’s mouth??? … SHE ABSOLUTELY NEEDS TO BE LEAD [sic] OUT TO PASTURE.”
Neither is Facebook’s block on “stop the steal” working terribly well as of yet, as Ars’ own Timothy Lee has discovered.
In the meantime, the District of Columbia is already shutting down for blocks around the Capitol, and heavy law enforcement and street closures are expected to remain in place through January 24.