Facebook Inc. FB -2.52% in 2019 redesigned its flagship product to center on what it called Groups, forums for like-minded users. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg called them the new “heart of the app.”
Now the social-networking giant is clamping down on Groups. The effort began after Facebook’s own research found that American Facebook Groups became a vector for the rabid partisanship and even calls for violence that inflamed the country after the election.
The changes, which Facebook escalated after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, involve overhauling the mechanics of a product that was meant to be central to its future.
Facebook executives were aware for years that tools fueling Groups’ rapid growth presented an obstacle to their effort to build healthy online communities, and the company struggled internally over how to contain them.
The company’s data scientists had warned Facebook executives in August that what they called blatant misinformation and calls to violence were filling the majority of the platform’s top “civic” Groups, according to documents The Wall Street Journal reviewed. Those Groups are generally dedicated to politics and related issues and collectively reach hundreds of millions of users.
The researchers told executives that “enthusiastic calls for violence every day” filled one 58,000-member Group, according to an internal presentation. Another top Group claimed it was set up by fans of Donald Trump but it was actually run by “financially motivated Albanians” directing a million views daily to fake news stories and other provocative content.
“Our existing integrity systems,” they wrote, “aren’t addressing these issues.”
In response, Facebook ahead of the election banned some of the most prominent problem Groups and took steps to reduce the growth of others, according to documents and people familiar with its decisions. Still, Facebook viewed the restrictions as temporary and stopped short of imposing measures some of its own researchers had called for, these people said.
In the weeks after the election, many large Groups—including some named in the August presentation—questioned the results of the vote, organized protests about the results and helped precipitate the protests that preceded the Jan. 6 riot. After the Capitol riot, Facebook took down more of the Groups and imposed new rules as part of what it called an emergency response.
Facebook has canceled plans to resume recommending civic or health Groups, said Guy Rosen, Facebook’s Vice President of Integrity, a role that oversees the safety of users and discourse on the platform. Facebook will also disable certain tools that researchers argued had facilitated edgy Groups’ rapid growth and require their administrators to devote more effort to reviewing member-created content, he said….
In a 2016 presentation about Facebook’s halting efforts to combat polarization, which the Journal reported last year, a researcher noted that extremist content had swamped large German political Groups and that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.” The presentation concluded that “our recommendation systems grow the problem.”
In response to the article, Facebook said it had fixed the recommendation problems.
The August 2020 internal presentation showed U.S. Groups tied to mercenary and hyperpartisan entities using Facebook’s tools to build large audiences. Many of the most successful Groups were under the control of administrators that tolerated or actively cultivated hate speech, harassment and graphic calls for violence, it said, noting that one top Group “aggregates the most inflammatory news stories of the day and feeds them to a vile crowd that immediately and repeatedly calls for violence.”
Administrators had designated most of the Groups as private, so only members could read them. Some were secret—people outside Facebook wouldn’t know they existed, much less that they were garnering millions of views a week.
Americans didn’t run some of the most popular Groups, the August presentation noted. It deemed a Group called “Trump Train 2020, Red Wave” as having “possible Macedonian ties” and of hosting the most hate speech taken down by Facebook of any U.S. Group. The Group grew to more than a million members within two months of its creation last summer, according to data archived by the fact-checking website Snopes, before Facebook took it down in September.
The Journal wasn’t able to contact the administrators of the Group, whose personal pages, some with dubious English, were also removed. A request for comment to a purported successor Group didn’t receive a response.
Most of the Groups were on the right end of the political spectrum, but “Suburban Housewives Against Trump” appeared near the top of the charts, too, the August presentation said. Conservative or liberal, the Groups shared a common thread: They had harnessed passionate super-users and Facebook recruitment tools to achieve viral growth.
Content from the top 10 civic Groups was seen 93 million times over the course of seven days late in the summer. Large groups’ intent to break Facebook’s rules was often overt, the August presentation noted, with administrators coaching users on how to post offensive material in ways that would escape Facebook’s automated filters.