Right-wing extremists used Facebook to make calls to overthrow the government and storm the US Capitol in the period leading up to a violent insurrection on Jan. 6, a tech watchdog group has found, contradicting attempts by the social media company to downplay the role of its platform in the affair.
A new report from Tech Transparency Project (TTP) shared with BuzzFeed News uncovered a slew of specific threats made in pro–President Donald Trump and militant groups on Facebook both before and after President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory in November. In those groups, organizers and members alike perpetuated the lie that the election results were fraudulent and made open calls to “Occupy Congress” on Jan. 6.
“If they won’t hear us, they will fear us,” read one image shared on Dec. 31 to a 23,500 member private group called “The Patriot Party,” which has since been deleted. “The Great Betrayal is over.”
While Facebook said it had banned pages and groups from right-wing militants and QAnon conspiracists over the summer, TTP’s report shows that extremist groups continued to flourish on Facebook. BuzzFeed News previously found that groups for “Stop the Steal,” the go-to slogan for Trump supporters casting doubt on Biden’s victory, persisted on the social network in the days after the violence at the US Capitol.
Last week, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company had acted appropriately to prevent election misinformation and the incitement of violence, and attempted to pin the blame on smaller websites and apps with less content moderation.
“I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards, and don’t have our transparency,” Sandberg said in an interview with Reuters. Facebook spokespeople have since tried to walk this statement back, noting that Sandberg made the point earlier in the interview that the platform played a role in fomenting the unrest.
“I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate.”
The report from TTP, a research organization funded by the Open Societies Foundation and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, draws a straight line from the vitriol, election lies, and threats posted and amplified on Facebook and the events in the District of Columbia earlier this month.
“[Facebook] has spent the past year failing to remove extremist activity and election-related conspiracy theories stoked by President Trump that have radicalized a broad swath of the population and led many down a dangerous path,” the report said.
While federal investigators have said many people coordinated their Jan. 6 activities using Parler, a social network that attracted members of the far right because of its lax approach to moderation, they also noted the use of other platforms, including Facebook. Many of the charges brought against people arrested for being involved in the insurrection have been supported with evidence of people boasting about their storming of the Capitol on Instagram and parent company Facebook.
“In the lead-up to January 6th, our teams were vigilant in removing content that violated our policies against inciting violence and dangerous organizations,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement in response to TTP’s findings. “Given the risk of further violence, we’ve taken additional emergency measures ahead of this week’s inauguration — including suspending President Trump’s accounts indefinitely.”
In August, Facebook said it had removed groups and pages “that support violent acts amidst protests, US-based militia organizations and QAnon,” the mass delusion that believes a cabal of elites who sexually abuse and eat children is running the government, and would “restrict their ability to organize on our platform.”
But they continued to use Facebook to assemble and proselytize, largely using private groups where members must request and are vetted by administrators, the TPP found. Its report shows that extremists began promoting and coordinating militia training before Election Day and then increased their incendiary and threatening language after Biden was declared the winner. Some of these groups then began heavily promoting the Jan. 6 event in DC as what users felt was a last resort to prevent perceived tyranny. One described it as “Independence Day 2.0” in a 3,200-person private group, while others made references to 1776, the start date of the American revolution.
“Patriots heading to DC, raise holly hell, its the only thing that Democrats understand,” read one Jan. 5 post in a private group for “Patriots” with 9,600 members. “If you want your country back, show them!!!”
“Are [you] willing to fight or maybe even Die for YOUR COUNTRY?”
Another post, in an 8,600-member private group, actively sought to recruit “patriots, pissed off vets, and first responders” to the “Ohio Minutemen Militia,” including an image of the organization’s insignia. One private group, which was created two weeks after Election Day and whose stated purpose was to “support 45,” even screened prospective members by asking if they were willing to be a martyr for the cause.
“Are [you] willing to fight or maybe even Die for YOUR COUNTRY?” administrators asked applicants.
To monitor the increase in violent rhetoric online, TTP created a Facebook profile that mimicked the online behavior of a right-wing extremist. While the account did not comment or react to posts, it did follow pages and groups that pushed election misinformation or militant rhetoric.
While Facebook occasionally took action against these pages or groups, TPP found new ones continued to pop up, including some for the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, militant movements that preach distrust of the federal government. On the morning of Jan. 6, a member of one private Facebook group associated with the Three Percenters posted a meme that read, “WE CANNOT WE WILL NOT COMPLY, Prepare to Take America Back.”
“ATTENTION PATRIOTS WE ARE TAKING BACK THE PEOPLE’S HOUSE,” one user who identified as a Three Percenter wrote on their personal page during the attack. “ALL GUARDIANS IN DC IT’S GO TIME!!! We are at the DOOR…”
Affidavits for search warrants used by the FBI to monitor extremist activity last year showed specific planning to mount political violence on Facebook dating back to the fall of 2019.
In one message sent in October of that year, for example, a Delaware man said he was “going to North Carolina on Saturday to discuss going to war against the government of North Carolina.” That man, Barry Croft, subsequently used Facebook to discuss plans to put the governor of South Carolina “in custody,” the affidavits show, and he was ultimately arrested and indicted for another plot to kidnap and potentially murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Although Croft’s coconspirators in the alleged Michigan scheme also used encrypted messaging apps to communicate, they relied heavily on public and private Facebook groups to organize and recruit for their efforts up until the day of their arrest on Oct. 7.
A militant-affiliated Facebook event in Kenosha, Wisconsin following the police shooting of Black man Jacob Blake, brought outside right-wing agitators to the town in August, leading to the shooting deaths of two protesters. Facebook users reported the event page 455 times in an attempt to prevent violence according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News, but the company failed to remove it.
Ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, Facebook has said it has taken measures to prevent any unrest by removing content containing the phrase “stop the steal” and blocking the creation of new Facebook events happening in close proximity to the White House, the US Capitol, and state capitol buildings through Inauguration Day.
Following reporting from BuzzFeed News and pressure from lawmakers, the company said it would also temporarily pause advertisements for weapon accessories and body armor, though those ads persisted on the social network through Monday.
Facebook employees have also flagged suspicious pages and groups, according to posts from the company’s internal message boards seen by BuzzFeed News. Last week, one employee uncovered a page called “Storm the inauguration, they can’t intern all of us,” which had created an event called “Popular Revolt.”
The event was scheduled for Jan. 20 in Washington. It is unclear who is behind the event or page, though both appear to have been taken offline.
“Share far and wide,” the event’s description read. “Storm the inauguration. They can’t shoot or arrest all of us. They don’t have enough balls or bullets.”