A massive Facebook group Stop the Steal, which spread misinformation about election fraud, accumulated more than 300,000 members in less than 48 hours, racking up hundreds of thousands of total impressions, according to CrowdTangle data.
The page, which has been taken down by Facebook, was organized by a pro-Trump group called Women for America First, which describes itself on its website as “engaging, inspiring and empowering women to make a difference.” “Democrats are scheming to disenfranchise and nullify Republican votes. It’s up to us, the American People, to fight and to put a stop to it,” the description of the page read. “Along with President Trump, we will do whatever it takes to ensure the integrity of this election for the good of the nation.”
The Facebook page was a repository of misinformation, such as the debunked claim that voters were encouraged to vote by Sharpie in Maricopa County to render their ballots illegible. A handful of the posts were marked with a label linking to fact-checked information about the 2020 U.S. election, but most were not. Other posts also promoted the debunked claim that election workers are throwing out ballots, or even more wide-reaching and baseless theories. “In my gutt ( my conspiracy theory) I’m sure Biden and China created this virus to cheat their way into this election,” one user posted in a comment. “Has anyone checked into this at all?”
According to reporting from Mother Jones, Women for America First is run by Kylie Jane Kremer, a former Tea Party activist. The Facebook group encouraged users to sign up for updates at an external website, StolenElection.us, “in the event that social media censors this group.” The domain for this website is registered to the Liberty Lab, a firm that has worked on such right-wing projects as Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign.
According to the events list on the Facebook page, the group organized numerous in-person protests all over the country, including a protest in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Thursday with more than 1,000 people saying they planned to attend the event on Facebook. Despite the social media site’s prohibitions against violent speech, the group featured a lot of “vague calls to action,” says Kathleen Stansberry, assistant professor of communications at Elon University. Some of the comments made reference to guns, such as an exhortation to “grab your guns.” “Is this 2A friendly?,” one commenter writes on the event page for the Harrisburg protest, making reference to the Second Amendment.
In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson tells Rolling Stone it has removed the group, on the grounds that it was “creating real-world events. The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” the spokesperson says. Calls to a number listed on the Women for America First website went unanswered.
Despite Facebook’s stated commitment to fighting election disinformation, the platform has fallen short according to some key measures, such as failing to label Trump’s posts erroneously calling an early victory as misinformation, as other platforms like Twitter did. Some of these posts have racked up millions of impressions. “Twitter has been more aggressive than I’ve seen in the past in labeling posts that they deem false or misleading or incorrect,” says Stansberry. “I am not seeing that same effort from Facebook through this election.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Angelo Carusone, CEO of Media Matters for America, said that while Facebook has done good work in curbing disinformation in terms of political ads, it has failed to take a similarly robust stance on election-related disinformation in general. “The clearest concern that remains open is going to be specific claims about polling fraud, malfeasance and misconduct at polling stations,” he said. “I worry about that scaling today…that will be the real test for Facebook.”
Update Thurs., Nov. 5, 2020, 2:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from a Facebook spokesperson.