Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Election Day and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence, an investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post has found.
The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term. Many posts portrayed Biden’s election as the result of widespread fraud that required extraordinary action — including the use of force — to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of traitors.
“LOOKS LIKE CIVIL WAR is BECOMING INEVITABLE !!!” read a post a month before the Capitol assault. “WE CANNOT ALLOW FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS TO STAND ! SILENT NO MORE MAJORITY MUST RISE UP NOW AND DEMAND BATTLEGROUND STATES NOT TO CERTIFY FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS NOW !”
Another post, made 10 days after the 2020 election, bore an avatar of a smiling woman with her arms raised in apparent triumph and read, “WE ARE AMERICANS!!! WE FOUGHT AND DIED TO START OUR COUNTRY! WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT… FIGHT LIKE HELL. WE WILL SAVE HER❤ THEN WERE GOING TO SHOOT THE TRAITORS!!!!!!!!!!!”
One post showed a Civil War-era picture of a gallows with more than two dozen nooses and hooded figures waiting to be hanged. Other posts called for arrests and executions of specific public figures — both Democrats and Republicans — depicted as betraying the nation by denying Trump a second term.
“BILL BARR WE WILL BE COMING FOR YOU,” wrote a group member after Barr announced that the Justice Department had found little evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread vote-rigging. “WE WILL HAVE CIVIL WAR IN THE STREETS BEFORE BIDEN WILL BE PRES.”
Facebook executives have played down the company’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and have resisted calls, including from its own Oversight Board, for a comprehensive internal investigation. The company also has yet to turn over all the information requested by the congressional committee studying the Jan. 6 attack, though it says it is negotiating with the committee.
But the ProPublica-Post investigation, which analyzed millions of posts between Election Day and Jan. 6 and drew on internal company documents and interviews with former employees, provides the clearest evidence yet that Facebook played a critical role in the spread of false narratives that fomented the violence of Jan. 6.
Its efforts to police such content, the investigation also found, were ineffective and started too late to quell the surge of angry, hateful misinformation coursing through Facebook groups — some of it explicitly calling for violent confrontation with government officials, a theme that foreshadowed the storming of the Capitol that day amid clashes that left five people dead.
Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for Meta, Facebook’s newly renamed parent company, said that the platform was not responsible for the violence on Jan. 6. He pointed instead to Trump and others who voiced the lies that sparked the attack on the Capitol.
“The notion that the January 6 insurrection would not have happened but for Facebook is absurd,” Pusateri said in a statement. “The former President of the United States pushed a narrative that the election was stolen, including in-person a short distance from the Capitol building that day. The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them.”
To determine the extent of posts attacking Biden’s victory, The Post and ProPublica obtained a unique dataset of 100,000 groups and their posts, along with metadata and images, compiled by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The Post and ProPublica used machine learning to narrow that list to 27,000 public groups that showed clear markers of focusing on U.S. politics. Out of the more than 18 million posts in those groups between Election Day and Jan. 6, the analysis searched for words and phrases to identify attacks on the election’s integrity.
The more than 650,000 posts attacking the election — and the 10,000-a-day average — is almost certainly an undercount. The ProPublica-Washington Post analysis examined posts in only a portion of all public groups, and did not include comments, posts in private groups or posts on individuals’ profiles. Only Facebook has access to all the data to calculate the true total — and it hasn’t done so publicly.