Saturday, October 23, 2021

During Capitol Riot, Facebook Struggled With Its Own Insurrection

After the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, far-right activists launched an online campaign to form what they called a Patriot Party as an alternative to the Republican Party.

Facebook Inc. worked to kill it, citing information it said showed the movement was being pushed by white nationalists and self-styled militias who had worked to instigate the riot, according to internal company documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook engineers made it harder for organizers to share Patriot Party content, restricted the visibility of groups connected to the movement and limited “super-inviters” from recruiting new adherents, according to a March review.

“We were able to nip terms like Patriot Party in the bud before mass adoption,” said another memo.

The surgical strike was part of a strategy Facebook adopted early this year to stop what it calls “harmful communities” from gaining traction on its platform before they spread too far. Rather than just taking action against posts that violate its rules, or that originate with actors such as Russia-based trolls, Facebook began putting its thumb on the scale against communities it deemed to be a problem. In April, based on the same policy, it took aim at a German conspiracy movement called Querdenken.

Internal Facebook documents show that people inside the company have long discussed a different, more systematic approach to restrict features that disproportionately amplify incendiary and divisive posts. The company rejected those efforts because they would impede the platform’s usage and growth.

According to Bloomberg,  Facebook said it ran the largest voter information campaign in U.S. history and took numerous steps to limit content that sought to delegitimize the election, including suspending Donald Trump’s account and removing content that violated company policies. 

Facebook spent more than two years preparing for the 2020 election with more than 40 teams across the company and removed more than 5 billion fake accounts that year, according to a company statement. In addition, from March to Election Day, the company removed more than 265,000 pieces of Facebook and Instagram content in the U.S. for violating voter interference policies. It also deployed measures before and after Election Day to keep potentially harmful content from spreading before content reviewers could assess them, which the company likened to shutting down an entire town’s road and highways to respond to a temporary threat, according to the statement. 

Over the 24 hours that followed the insurrection, employees — whose names are redacted in the documents— used the internal version of Facebook to debate the company’s performance in frank terms. Among the criticisms: that Facebook failed to aggressively act against “Stop the Steal” groups that coalesced around the false notion that former President Trump had won the election.  And that the company's leaders repeatedly let down rank-and-file employees fighting to more aggressively curtail misinformation and other harms.

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