Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of a House of Representatives committee that his company had done its part “to secure the integrity of the election.” While the social network did not catch everything, the billionaire chief executive said, Facebook had “made our services inhospitable to those who might do harm” in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Less than a week after his appearance, however, an internal company report reached a far different conclusion: Facebook failed to stop a highly influential movement from using its platform to delegitimize the election, encourage violence, and help incite the Capitol riot.
Shared on Facebook’s employee communication platform last month, the report is a blunt assessment of how people connected to “Stop the Steal,” a far-right movement based on the conspiracy theory that former president Donald Trump won the 2020 US presidential election, used the social network to foment an attempted coup. The document explicitly states that Facebook activity from people connected to Stop the Steal and other Trump loyalist groups including the Patriot Party played a role in the events of Jan. 6, and that the company’s emphasis on rooting out fake accounts and “inauthentic behavior” held it back from taking preemptive action when real people were involved.
“Hindsight is 20/20, at the time, it was very difficult to know whether what we were seeing was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election, or whether it was free expression by users who were afraid and confused and deserved our empathy,” reads the report, which was put together by an internal task force studying harmful networks and obtained by BuzzFeed News. “But hindsight being 20/20 makes it all the more important to look back to learn what we can about the growth of the election delegitimizing movements that grew, spread conspiracy, and helped incite the Capitol insurrection.”
The report, titled “Stop the Steal and Patriot Party: The Growth and Mitigation of an Adversarial Harmful Movement,” provides yet another case study of how relatively small but coordinated groups of people are able to wreak havoc and spread misinformation on the world’s dominant social network. It’s also a sober admission that a company, which recorded more than $29 billion in profit last year, still struggles to track and preempt networks of people seeking to sow discord and undermine liberal democracy in the US and around the world.
Even though the company spent months preparing for potential delegitimization of the election from Trump and his supporters, Facebook was outmaneuvered by a powerful network of coordinated accounts that promoted groups where members glorified hate, incited violence, and sought to spread a big election lie, according to the report. It notes that while Facebook was satisfied “at having made it past the election without major incident,” that feeling was “tempered by the rise in angry vitriol and a slew of conspiracy theories that began to steadily grow” after Election Day, Nov. 3.